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Smiles return to Rangers faithful


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Smiles return to Rangers faithful



For the first time since the 1996-97 NHL campaign, the New York Rangers will be among the 16 teams in the postseason quest for Lord Stanley's Cup.


That adds up to seven consecutive seasons of failure and disappointment — almost as long as it's been since there's been a good Kevin Costner film, eh? — for the team, the organization and, of course, the Blueshirts faithful.


Living in New York, commuting daily under Madison Square Garden and working around the game for much of that time, it is easy to be aware of the emotions that ran through the Rangers fan base during the lean times — not to mention the harassment that comes with living around Islanders and Devils fans.


For the duration of the 1994 playoffs, when the Rangers won the Stanley Cup for the first time since 1940, the excitement was palpable all throughout the area, no matter where you looked. The Broadway Blues evoked a fever pitch of hockey passion.


A sign held up by a fan after the Rangers' Cup-clinching victory over Vancouver summed things up: "Now I can die in peace." While that feeling surely kept people going for the first few years of post-Cup failure, I highly doubt those sentiments held up through the team's seventh failed attempt to enter hockey's second season.


As Rangers season-ticker holder Rich Fogarty put it, "My 11-year-old son, born on the day of the Rangers' Broadway parade in 1994, can't remember the Rangers last playoff appearance. For my seven-year-old, there have been no playoff games to forget."


(Side note: As Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals against the Devils went to overtime, Fogarty made a promise among friends and family, saying if a Rangers player won the game and sent New York to the Cup finals, his first-born son would carry the name of the man responsible. Stephane [Matteau] became his son's middle name just a few short weeks later).


Fast-forward to January, 2004. After years of attempting to collect every high-priced malcontent in the NHL, with mostly disastrous results, the Rangers appeared to add another to the list by acquiring Jaromir Jagr from the Washington Capitals for spare parts.


Arguably the best player in hockey for the past several years, there was no doubt that Jagr was talented enough to help turn this team around. What was in doubt was his all-around game and work ethic at both ends of the ice. Would Jagr turn it around with the Rangers? Or would he become another Bobby Holik, another Theo Fleury?


Things proved different in New York. The new, no-clutching, no-grabbing and no-hooking rules changes proved an advantage for Jagr and his style of play. Additionally the infusion of several fellow Czechs into the lineup has seemed to have given him a level of comfort and enjoyment on the ice that wasn't there in the past.


Just over a month after Jagr was acquired, Tom Renney was named the Rangers' interim head coach. The club made the title permanent not long after the 2004 NHL draft.


Renney's mantra directed the Rangers to take care of business in their own zone first, something new for the team. Once his players bought into his system, good things began to happen. The results can be clearly seen, as the team has been up there with the best when it comes to defense and overall goals allowed.


Together, these two men led the turnaround that has brought unexpected success. But as much as Jagr's skill and Renney's coaching led the way, there's another occurrence that has played just as big a role: The salary cap.


In the past, an unlimited payroll meant acquiring high-priced talent, regardless of how they fit into the team's lineup. The results continued to prove that a high payroll does not necessarily equal high success. Things had to change.


So, for the first time in a long time, the Rangers went through a major overhaul, one initiated when GM Glen Sather put the "for sale" sign on much of the organization's high-priced, but under-achieving talent at the 2004 trade deadline. Come the 2005-06 preseason, the names on the back of many jerseys were almost unrecognizable.


But that was then and this is now. Names like Dominic Moore, Petr Prucha, Ryan Hollweg, Michal Rozsival and Henrik Lundqvist are not just recognizable, they are showing up on fans' jerseys in and around the arena.


This is no longer a team of big names and high salaries. The Garden has found goal-scorers, forecheckers, goaltenders, offensive and defensive defensemen, role players. They now have the roster of a well-balanced team.


This team has proven that hockey is back in Manhattan in a very big way, and their fans are right there beside them.


Extreme Rangers fan Sal Gulino adds, "It's the winning combination of young talent and the powerhouse, Jagr, which has made this season possible. Not even my newborn son could keep me away from the playoffs."


It's been a long wait for a lot of people in the Big Apple. Now, they finally get a chance to hold out hope for a good run at hockey's silver chalice. As time rolls on and seasons develop, desires change and expectations can grow quickly. Only time will tell what fate is in store for the Rangers, but one thing is for sure — they have made their fans extremely happy all season long and they will be heading into the playoffs with a ton of support behind them.



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