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Brendan Shanahan and Jaromir Jagr now Rangers linemates

The Rangers' new forward joked that his badge of honour was incurred during team bonding exercises over the weekend - a kayak race gone awry. The reality was much less dramatic. A wayward shot from a teammate before Saturday's exhibition game in Boston hit the crossbar and caromed into the eye of the former Detroit Red Wings star.

Shanahan's wound will be quite obvious when he hits the ice at Madison Square Garden on Thursday night for the first time as a New Yorker in the season opener. But what will draw more attention is his placement on a line with top scorer Jaromir Jagr.

"Unfortunately we didn't have all of camp to prepare," Shanahan said Wednesday after the team's final pre-season practice. "When you get some of these elite players, they're unpredictable. They kind of do things differently and that's what makes them great."

Instead of reuniting the successful line of Jagr, Michael Nylander, and Martin Straka, Rangers coach Tom Renney is putting the NHL's top two active goal scorers together.

"I don't make the lineup here," Jagr said. "Whatever the coaches decide to do is fine with me."

The Rangers' dynamic duo of Jagr and Shanahan - who totalled 94 goals last season - have had only two games to get used to each other. Nylander completes the top line that was put together Friday night for the first of back-to-back contests.

"He has the experience to be a winner," Jagr said of Shanahan, a three-time Cup champion. "We were missing that last year.

"You cannot learn it, you have to go through it to find out how to play the tough games."

Last weekend was Jagr's first action since the playoffs when he was sidelined by a dislocated left shoulder that required surgery.

The pain is gone but the strength isn't there yet, although Jagr said it's improving. It will need to continue on that path if the Rangers are going to have realistic hopes of making consecutive post-season appearances. Before last spring they hadn't been there since 1997.

"I wish I could do miracles but I can't. Hopefully it's going to get better and better," Jagr said. "If something stupid doesn't happen in the game I should be fine."

Not many expected the Rangers to reach the playoffs at this time last year. But with Jagr coming off a season in which he set team records with 54 goals and 123 assists, Henrik Lundqvist returning after a year in which he broke the club rookie mark with 30 victories, and the addition of Shanahan, anything less than a strong showing in the spring will be disappointing.

A lot of pressure, considering the Rangers were a popular pick to be the worst team in the league coming out of the lockout last year.

"It's going to be harder," Jagr said. "I don't think many teams are going to take us lightly like they did last year. But if you're going to be good in the league, you should be ready for that."

By the end of last season, the Rangers looked more like the underachievers they were predicted to be instead of the upstarts they were throughout the season. They dropped their final five regular-season games, which cost them the Atlantic Division championship and pushed them to the sixth seed in the Eastern Conference.

The slide continued in the playoffs, and their skid reached nine games when the New Jersey Devils swept them out in the first round.

Now they have to prove again they are contenders.

"Our chance is over the course of the season," Renney said. "I think if we allow outings here or there that we don't measure up ... to stifle our continued growth as a team then we do have a problem.

"As much as the pundits will suggest this and that about our team, what's most important is what we identify as being important night in and night out in terms of how we play, where our work habits are, our execution, and ultimately the outcome."

Opening night Thursday against Alexander Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals will also feature the introduction of a new Rangers captain, something they haven't had since Mark Messier retired after the 2003-04 season.

All signs point to Jagr getting the C on his sweater, but neither Renney nor Jagr tipped his hand.

"I've never been that guy who wanted to die to be the captain," Jagr said. "I want to help differently. To me it doesn't matter. You guys are still going to blame me anyway if something goes wrong whether I'm captain or not."



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