Seventh Heaven For Blueshirts
Not even the Olympic Break could cool off the Rangers. In their first game back from an 18-day layoff, the Atlantic Division leaders stormed the second place Flyers 6-1 at the Wachovia Center Thursday night. It was their seventh straight win and moved them 21 games over .500 and four points ahead of Philadelphia.
Playing with a sore groin, the league's leading scorer Jaromir Jagr showed no ill effects tallying his 41st and 42nd goals with an assist to increase his total to 91 points. With 80 points and 23 games remaining, this is the latest the Rangers have been in first since '95-96. They'll look to put some more distance between themselves and third place New Jersey Saturday.
Early on, they were a little rusty. Surrendering the game's first three power plays to the Flyers, they allowed 13 of the first 14 shots. Fortunately, scheduled starter Kevin Weekes was razor sharp in turning them aside to keep it scoreless. He stopped all 15 shots in a busy first period which turned on a late power play goal by Michael Nylander.
After being on their heels the majority of the period, the Blueshirts took advantage of a late Eric Desjardins holding penalty to jump in front. A hustling Martin Straka setup a two-on-none down low in which Jagr setup Nylander at 17:34 for a tap-in against a helpless Robert Esche.
Ahead by one early in the second, the Rangers capitalized on some undisciplined play by Donald Brashear and Derian Hatcher. With the Flyers enforcer targeting Darius Kasparaitis, Brashear lost his cool when he retaliated by pulling Kasparaitis' helmet off in response to a clean hit. After a Hatcher slash made it a five-on-three, Jagr made them pay by scoring on both ends 27 seconds apart. The first PPG gave him 1,399 points for his career- passing Jari Kurri for the most all-time by a European-trained player. Only Stan Mikita (1,467) had more but he was raised mostly in Canada.
On a broken play, Jagr became the 17th player in NHL history to pick up career point number 1,400 when he put home his own rebound. It forced Flyer coach Ken Hitchcock to pull Esche in favor of silver medallist Antero Niittymaki. It wouldn't take long for them to get to Niittymaki.
With the Flyers coming unglued, Blair Betts made it three goals in a 1:58 span when he surprised Niittymaki with a wrist shot through traffic for a 4-0 lead. In his first game back from an MCL sprain, Betts tallied his fifth of the season and first since November 24. He also won 10-of-15 draws and was plus-two in 12:51 along with some splendid penalty killing work which saw the Rangers kill off eight of nine Philadelphia power plays. Meanwhile, they were a sizzling four-of-six on the PP.
Freddy Meyer IV got one back on a four-on-three at 9:32 when he one-timed a Joni Pitkanen feed inside the crossbar. But Philly's momentum was shortlived. Just 18 seconds later, Jason Ward scored unassisted to restore the four-goal cushion. Off a blind pass by Randy Jones, Ward skated in and retrieved the gift by deking a surprised Niittymaki for his 10th of the season.
With the outcome all but decided, New York added insult to injury by killing off a Flyer five-on-three with under 9:00 left. Weekes denied Jeff Carter's stuff-in tries for two of his sparkling 36 saves. It was his third consecutive victory.
As time was winding down, Brashear once again sought out Kasparaitis. Deliberately punching him with his gloves on, Brashear drew a holding minor, fighting major, instigator, misconduct and game misconduct all on the same reckless play with 1:53 remaining. In total, he finished with 35 penalty minutes on the night. His actions will earn him an automatic one-game suspension due to the new league rules which permit any late game scraps with under five minutes to go.
Martin Rucinsky put an exclamation point on the victory when he blasted his 15th inside the post with 1:12 left.
Notes: Ten different Rangers registered a point. Rucinsky finished with a goal and assist while Steve Rucchin added two helpers. ... Ward's 10 goals and 23 points are career highs. ... Esche allowed three goals on seven shots in 25 minutes before Niittymaki relieved him. Niittymaki finished with 16 saves the rest of the way. ... Blueshirts lead season series 3-0-2. ... Rangers (36-15-8, 80 pts) travel to Devils (31-22-7, 69 pts) Saturday night (7:30 PM) for the seventh meeting of the season. They own a 4-1-1 record thus far.