Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Canes Storm Rangers, Skid At Six

The losing streak is now at six with no end in sight. But somehow, the Rangers still lead the Atlantic Division by two points. They could be tied with the Flyers when they return home Thursday to begin a crucial four-game homestand against Washington when they try to get out of this funk.

"It's not a good situation that we are in," Jaromir Jagr told the AP afterwards. "Everybody knows how important these next four games are at home. It might be our season. That's the way I look at it. I thought we started playing better in the last two games. It's just that the results are not there."

They fell to the Eastern Conference-leading Hurricanes 5-3 at the RBC Center Tuesday night. Doug Weight had two goals and an assist and Martin Gerber made 41 saves to lift Carolina past the Rangers- snapping their own three-game losing streak.

Once again without their most valuable defenseman Marek Malik due to a sprained shoulder sustained in a 2-1 loss at New Jersey March 4 when this winless streak began, the Rangers continued to have problems in their own end leading directly to goals against.

The first such problem arose when Matt Cullen redirected an Aaron Ward feed past ex-Cane Kevin Weekes at 8:57. After a strong shift by the top unit of Martin Rucinsky, Michael Nylander and Jagr, Carolina caught them in transition leading to Cullen's tally where he used Tom Poti as a screen.

Making his first start in five games, Weekes was sharp (24 saves) despite seeing less pucks. Facing an eye opening amount of odd-man rushes and quality chances, he kept his team in the game. When Nylander converted a Fedor Tyutin pass which banked off a skate right to him in the slot, the game was tied just 5:35 later. Jagr notched his 50th assist of the season.

Carolina retook the lead 3:07 into the second when Weight tallied his first of the night. Taking advantage of a sloppy turnover by Jason Ward who failed to clear the puck out, Andrew Ladd worked the puck around to Glen Wesley before he fed a vacated Weight at the left point. Weight's wrist shot deflected off Blair Betts past Weekes.

It would get worse for the Blueshirts thanks to an undisciplined Nylander high sticking double minor. Off a three-on-two rush, Weight one-timed a Ray Whitney feed past Weekes' blocker to make it 3-1 8:01 later.

Just a few minutes later, Martin Straka was hooked down from behind and awarded a penalty shot. But as he tried to deke Gerber to the backhand, the Carolina netminder swatted it away to keep his team ahead by two.

New York drew within one though with just 17 seconds remaining in the period when Nylander registered his second of the night on the power play. During a mad scramble in which Gerber thought he had covered the puck, Sandis Ozolinsh worked it out to Nylander who buried it inside the crossbar for his 17th of the season. Petr Prucha got the secondary assist for his second point in two games since returning from an MCL sprain.

But Carolina defenseman Mike Commodore restored the two-goal lead 5:47 into the third for his second in two games against the Rangers. He also scored in Carolina's 2-1 win at MSG March 6. It was another goal where nobody picked up the pinching Commodore, who one-timed Justin Williams' feed past a helpless Weekes.

In a period in which the Rangers outshot the Canes 18-8, they continued to press and finally were rewarded with less than two minutes to go when Petr Sykora's one-timer from the slot snuck through Gerber to pull them within one.

But it was too little too late when recent acquisition Ozolinsh turned over the puck to Cory Stillman at his own blueline with Weekes pulled. Amazingly, Ozolinsh moved his legs out of the way of Stillman's empty netter which sealed the Rangers' fate.

It summed up this team perfectly since the Olympic Break with only four points (1-4-2) in its first seven games. Barring a total collapse, they should make their first postseason since 1997. 17 games remaining. The question is will they be able to regain the momentum they have lost.

Notes: One game after tweaking his left knee and leaving early against Atlanta Sunday, left wing Martin Rucinsky suited up but reinjured it in the first and didn't return. ... Nylander's goals broke a six-game drought without a point. ... With their victory, Carolina established new franchise marks in wins (44), home wins (27) and points (94) for a season- breaking records set by the '86-87 Whalers. ... Carolina defensemen Bret Hedican (illness) and Niclas Wallin (injury) did not play. ... Rangers (36-19-10, 82 pts) host Washington (22-35-7, 51 pts) Thursday night.

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