Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Jagr's Illegal Sticks Cost Rangers Point

Maybe now Jaromir Jagr will have legal sticks at the bench. Twice, he was victimized for illegal sticks in a 3-2 shootout loss to the Thrashers at Philips Arena. It was the third consecutive one-goal defeat for the Rangers.

Already victimized in overtime, Jagr was found to have another bad stick by referees Don Koharski and Mike Hasenfratz before the shootout. As part of the new rules since the Olympic Break, officials must measure the first shooter's sticks to make sure they are within league rules. Jagr was disqualified. Baffled by the explanation, an animated Jagr mildly protested at the bench.

On the strength of two successive dekes by Michael Nylander and Petr Sykora sandwiched around a Marc Savard tally, the Blueshirts were one shot away from a win. But after Martin Rucinsky ran out of real estate, Slava Kozlov deked Henrik Lundqvist putting the puck just inside the crossbar to force a fourth round. When Kari Lehtonen swatted aside Martin Straka's try and Marian Hossa beat Lundqvist to the glove side, Atlanta (30-27-6) pulled within one point of eighth seed Montreal for the final playoff spot.

With the trade deadline approaching at 3 PM later today, it might indicate that the team needs to make a move. Before the game, the Rangers announced that they had traded left wing Ville Nieminen to San Jose in exchange for a 2006 third round pick.

Despite Coach Tom Renney's insistence on wanting to see his team get off to a quicker start, it didn't happen. Just 1:13 into the game, Ilya Kovalchuk's centering feed deflected off Michal Rozsival past Lundqvist to put the Rangers behind for the third straight game. In an alarming trend, they haven't led at any point since a 6-1 triumph at Philadelphia last Thursday. That's the last 185:00 without a lead.

The Blueshirts drew even when Jagr connected on a five-on-three for his league-leading 43rd at 6:24. Taking advantage of two Atlanta penalties 24 seconds apart, Jagr worked a give-and-go with Martin Rucinsky to perfection with his one-timer eluding Lehtonen's glove.

On an Atlanta power play with under five minutes left in the first, Jason Ward was hooked down from behind while breaking in shorthanded. Though, he got off a shot which Lehtonen stopped, he was awarded a penalty shot. But on it, as he attempted to deke the Atlanta rookie netminder, the puck slid off his stick wide to keep the game knotted.

With both goalies sharp throughout, Atlanta took the play to the Rangers in the second period outshooting them 15-9. In as sloppy a period as the Rangers have played this season, they somehow managed to kill off all six Thrasher power plays including two five-on-three's. Thanks in large part to some big saves from Lundqvist, the game was still tied. But shortly after they killed off a Blair Betts interference minor, the Rangers D got caught napping resulting in Atlanta regaining the lead on a Serge Aubin tally with 1:23 left. Left alone in the slot, Aubin one-timed a Brad Larsen feed through Lundqvist.

Fortunately for them, rookie defenseman Thomas Pock struck back 1:16 later to tie it with seven seconds left. Off a Rucinsky pass, Pock's slapshot sailed through a maze of players past Lehtonen. His first goal of the season came at a huge moment and allowed his team to gain a valuable point in the standings. Coupled with the Flyers 3-2 shootout win over Carolina, they're only a point ahead for the Atlantic Division with 20 games remaining. With an extra game at hand plus the one point Pock got them, it could prove to be the difference.

That's if the Rangers rediscover the winning formula by the weekend.

Notes: Defenseman Marek Malik (chest) sat out his second consecutive game. ... Atlanta defenseman Garnet Exelby left the game in the third period due to a Ryan Hollweg hit along the boards. ... Rangers are now 5-2 in shootouts while Atlanta won their fourth in a row to improve to 4-4. ... The win was the Thrashers' third straight despite finishing 0-for-9 on the PP. ... In the battle of rookie netminders, Lundqvist finished with 33 saves while counterpart Lehtonen stopped 32 before the SO. ... Rangers (36-17-9, 81 pts) travel to Montreal (29-23-9, 67 pts) Saturday night before returning home Sunday to play Atlanta again.

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