Sunday, February 24, 2008

Jagr, Rangers stifle Panthers

Jaromir Jagr was at his best scoring and setting up teammates as the Rangers easily blitzed past the visiting Panthers 5-0 tonight at The Garden.

The Ranger team captain scored for the second consecutive game and dominated throughout as he and teammates were much better than Florida in the second of a back-to-back for each club. Though No.68 only notched one point, it was definitely one of his best efforts this season as he moved extremely well with and without the puck creating plenty of chances.

Also playing perhaps his finest game of a downer of a season was much maligned defenseman Marek Malik. The often criticized D was extremely active in his end and also contributed offensively, scoring his first goal of the season and assisting on another. When he plays relatively well, the Blueshirts are a better team. Ditto for his more popular Czech teammate.

Knowing they needed another solid effort against one of the teams trailing them in the standings, New York came out very strong getting seven of the first nine shots on Florida netminder Tomas Vokoun.

Despite Vokoun being sharp, it would be a bit of a Ranger bounce which resulted in an easy backhand tap-in by leading scorer Scott Gomez for the game's first goal. Brendan Shanahan's shot deflected right to Gomer, who desposited his 14th for the lead 7:53 in. Ironically, a Shanny deflected shot had a similar end result late last night when Sean Avery notched the winner in Buffalo. Maybe their fortunes are finally turning for the better.

The Rangers would outshoot Florida 12-5 and take that lead to the locker room. It wouldn't take long for them to add to the lead. Thanks to some hard work by returning Ranger Marcel Hossa who forced a turnover to keep the puck in, it allowed for Malik's first of the season. With Gomez and Marty Straka coming on during a change, they outworked the Panthers along the boards before setting up Malik at the left point. His shot beat Vokoun with Hossa screening in front to make it 2-0 at 4:57 of the second.

Even though Hossa didn't get a point, the goal happened because of him. I know we all have been critical of the Slovak but he's a much better fit on the fourth line than either Ryan Hollweg or Colton Orr. So, when Orr returns, either sit him out or scratch Hollywood.

If the Panthers were planning a comeback, Jagr put a dent into it by scoring perhaps the nicest goal of the season. Working a textbook give-and-go during an odd-man rush, a streaking Jagr took an Avery pass on the left wing and then went around a scrambling Vokoun before tucking a backhand inside the post for his 17th just 75 seconds later. It was his eighth point (2-6-8) in the last five games.

Even more encouraging was that when rookie pivot Brandon Dubinsky was off serving a major and misconduct for a scrap with Greg Campbell, Jagr didn't look out of place with Avery and Chris Drury anchoring the line.

Some more good work by the Blueshirts in the third helped put the game away. Off some excellent work by Gomez, Malik took a feed and intentionally fired the puck wide allowing it to carom right to rookie Nigel Dawes, who buried his 10th with Vokoun down and out preoccupied with Drury in front. It was the second straight contest Dawes tallied. He's been coming on lately and generating more chances. Especially on the man-advantage. The Ranger staff has to be pleased with how he's responded since coming back up from Hartford. He's much more active.

The Rangers' final goal was a thing of beauty. Off some more great work by another rookie- this time the improved Ryan Callahan, the Rochester native calmly drove to the net drawing two Florida defenders before dishing off for a trailing Straka, whose one-timer went top shelf. Where Mama hides the cookies.

The only remaining question was whether Henrik Lundqvist would get the shutout. With one strong stop on an Olli Jokinen redirect at four ahead early in the final stanza, he showed he was sharp despite not much work.

King Henrik stopped all nine Panther third period shots en route to a 23 save shutout for his eighth blanking of the season. Only Columbus' Pascal Leclaire (9) has more.

All in all, it was a very good night for the Rangers, who for now moved a couple of points ahead of idle Boston for sixth in the East. The Bruins do have three extra games to make up. So, figure the standings to change by Thursday when the Blueshirts take on Carolina in their next game.

I guess the only other thought I have is why it took this long for the team to play this way. Why didn't they do it sooner? I guess they have to be desperate to be at their very best.

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