Top Shelf: Rangers back, minus the razzle

By definition, Broadway isn’t the place to find under-the-radar things. Dark horses have typically become darlings by the time their name hits the marquee.

But this year’s version of the New York Rangers isn’t your typical brash, big-city bunch. A team that in recent years came to be known for its heavy Czech presence is really more about checking hard at both ends of the rink and thriving on a north-south game. That and fantastic goaltending.

With the Eastern Conference as wide open as Saskatchewan, the Rangers are starting to gather a sizeable following of people who believe this could be the year Madison Square Garden plays host to another Stanley Cup final.

And let’s be right up front about this; predicting the Rangers will skate through the East is as much about Ottawa’s lack of goaltending, Montreal’s youth and Pittsburgh’s lack of it not being, oh, let’s say 2010 yet, as it is New York’s excellence.

But there are undeniably things to like about this New York crew.

First of all, they’ve got playoff pedigree. Of the teams vying to represent the East, only Carolina and New Jersey have anywhere near the Cup bling New York has. Shanahan, Jagr, Gomez, Drury – Stanley’s engraver is familiar with all these names.

Part of the reason the Rangers have kept a lower profile this season is because Jagr is having his worst statistical showing in a long time. With two games left on the regular season docket, 68 was not only the number on his back, but also his total number of points. The last time Jagr had numbers that Earthly was when he posted 69 points as a sophomore with the Pens in 1991-92.

When the Blueshirts inked Gomez and Drury to large contracts last summer it was assumed one of them would line up with Jagr on his right. That turned out to be all wrong.

It wasn’t until Jagr was paired with rookie center Brandon Dubinsky that he found his man in the middle. Dubinsky, you’ll be interested to know, has 34 points in his past 56 contests. And he’s not the only freshman making his mark on the team. Speedy Nigel Dawes has banked 21 points over the past 35 games and just has that game-breaker feel to him. Four of Dawes’ 13 goals have been game-winners, third most on the team.

Drury’s large reputation for big-game heroics is as accurate as it is prominent. He’s a winner, pure and simple.

Gomez has found his place on a new side of the Hudson River and after a sluggish start went on to hit the 70-point barrier again.

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The fact I’ve waited this long to mention Henrik Lundqvist is definitely not a comment on how important he is to this team. The aforementioned Cup-winners can draw on all the experience they want; they won’t have a prayer of adding to their ring collection unless Lundqvist is at his best.

The good news for Rangers fans is he has been great down the stretch, just as he was last year for New York and just as he was for Team Sweden when it won Olympic gold in 2006.

Lundqvist is the kind of goalie who can single-handedly turn a seven-game series. And as a rule of thumb, don’t make a habit of betting against guys nicknamed ‘The King.’

Still, this is one Ranger team that feels as if it could just as easily be representing Iowa as the Big Apple.

Sure, they’ve got the Gums of Gotham, Sean Avery, doing enough talking for everybody. And Shanahan has long been a media darling due his sharp wit and intelligent insights.

But contrast that with the last Blueshirts team to make the final. What could be more New York than the captain of the Rangers, some guy named Messier, guaranteeing his team – down 3-2 to the Devils in the series – would win Game 6 of the East final?

The tabloids ate it up, The Moose went out and scored a hat trick and the Rangers fan club pretty much set to work right there gathering the ticker-tape.

The captain of this year’s Rangers might be decorated, but Jagr is not really one for declarations.

Drury has the big-moment moxie to win a Conn Smythe, but he comes off a bit dreary in front of the camera.

And I dare you to name two blueliners on the Blueshirts.

Every spring we hear about how great it would be for the league to have the Rangers in the final. After all, hockey reached its zenith in terms of American popularity when Messier and Co. captured the 1994 title.

Well, this year’s team may not win a personality contest, but it’s definitely good enough to slip through a spotty conference and give the NHL the New York-We’ll Take It final it’s been after for nearly 15 years.

Ryan Dixon is a writer and copy editor for The Hockey News magazine, the co-author of the book Hockey’s Young Guns and a regular contributor to His blog appears Wednesdays and his column, Top Shelf, appears every second Friday.

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