Rangers need some late-season magic


NEW YORK -- Roger Neilson, whose reputation as a master innovator precedes him, may have to pull another one of his famous unusual moves out of the hat to jump-start his New York Rangers.

So, what does he do this time? Juggle the lines as he has done before? Hold practice at midnight? How about undoing a goaltending rotation that has been a major reason why the Rangers were atop the Patrick Division for 147 consecutive days until Sunday?

The time is ripe to make the Mike Richter-John Vanbiesbrouck rotation history, not necessarily to salvage first place with six regular-season games remaining but, more important, to build some momentum toward the playoffs that start two weeks from today.

If you want to get technical, the Rangers do have momentum -- the wrong kind. They have lost their last six games and the division lead to the surging Pittsburgh Penguins, who took over first on the strength of their solid, playofflike, 4-2 victory Sunday.

A good part of the Rangers' positive momentum was established because Richter and Vanbiesbrouck have alternated every game since the season opener. Until recently, the team avoided prolonged slumps and the goalies avoided burnout.

Richter put up the superior numbers -- 19-11-6 and a 3.01 goals-against average to Beezer's 3.30 goals against, 15-17-6 mark and three shutouts. But Neilson has said it goes beyond numbers, and he's right.

Richter has enjoyed an above-average year, Vanbiesbrouck an average year (which many teams wouldn't mind having). Moreover, Richter has broken eight losing or winless streaks of two or more games with a winning effort. Vanbiesbrouck has accomplished that feat once, in the first week of the season.

Neilson, however, doesn't appear ready to budge from his rotation. After Sunday's loss, he was asked whether he was considering breaking up the rotation to shake up the team a bit.

"It's a possibility," he said. "It's something you think of for the next game."

Neilson said he was disappointed at dropping out of first place "only if we don't finish there. Nobody said we had to be there every game of the year. Maybe by Thursday night we'll be back in it."

That's when the Rangers visit the Civic Arena in Pittsburgh, where the Penguins are 11-0-1 since Jan. 3, when the Rangers beat them, 7-5.

In that contest, Neilson scrambled his lines and the team exploded for six second-period goals.

What will he do for this encounter?

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