For Rangers' Richter, Keenan made difference


It's true New York Rangers coach Mike Keenan arrived during the summer, but goalie Mike Richter didn't feel the impact until mid-October.

That's when Richter lost back-to-back games to the expansion Mighty Ducks of Anaheim and the second-year Tampa Bay Lightning. Keenan, who is known for his quick hook, stood by Richter.

Richter hadn't lost since -- until last night.

"Mike knows he's No. 1," said Keenan. "I think that's very important to him, because he had an unsettling year the year before. He had lost his confidence."

A year ago, Richter shared the starting position with John Vanbiesbrouck, now the successful No. 1 goalie for the Panthers. A year ago, Richter could not break .500.

His 20-game unbeaten streak, which was ended last night, is the longest in Rangers history and 12 shy of the NHL record set by Boston's Gerry Cheevers in 1971-72.

"Richter was a good goalie before this season," said Washington's veteran goalie, Don Beaupre. "He had a tough year last year. We all go through that. But this season, Keenan showed his confidence in him immediately by letting John Vanbiesbrouck go, and Mike has responded to the opportunity."

The Rangers' goalie situation last season is similar to the one the Washington Capitals have this season.

Beaupre and Rick Tabaracci are playing well, and each game coach Terry Murray must decide who gets the start.

Tonight, against the Rangers at USAir Arena, it is expected to be Tabaracci, who came within 12.3 seconds of Washington's first shutout of the season Tuesday in a 4-1 victory in Philadelphia.

"I think the record is great," said Richter. "But you don't go into a game going for a record. You go into it saying, 'I want to win each game.' The rest takes care of itself.

"When [Keenan] came here to be our coach, my first thought was he'd make me a better athlete, and it's true. He has. And the best thing is, I feel my play can still improve. I certainly don't feel as if I've reached my potential."

It will be the Capitals' mission to beat Richter and the Rangers, who have the best record in the NHL.

The Capitals know it is a tall order. They have not beaten New York in three games this season and are trying to get over the embarrassment they felt in their first meeting, when -- not yet in full stride -- the Rangers ran them off the Madison Square Garden ice in a 5-2 romp.

In the latest meeting, Washington's Dale Hunter suffered a partial tear of his medial collateral ligament after being tripped by the Rangers' Alexei Kovalev.

Kovalev was given a five-game suspension. Hunter will return to the ice tonight for the first time since the incident.

"The knee feels pretty good," he said. "I don't care that it's the Rangers. I just care that it's my first game back, and now I can start contributing."

On Tuesday, Hunter signed a contract extension for $850,000 in each of the next two seasons.

"The team was generous," he said of the $250,000 raise. "Now I want to help do something for them. If I don't win a Stanley Cup before I'm through, my brothers, Dave and Mark, will never let me live it down that they've won it and I haven't."

It is the Rangers who seem headed toward Stanley Cup glory.

"We've got to play them, just like we played Philadelphia," said Capitals defenseman Kevin Hatcher, referring to Tuesday's superior defensive performance. "We've got to hold them up and get in good position. We can't let them get their forechecking going, because if they get that established early, they'll thrive off it."

The Rangers have been thriving on the play of Brian Leetch, Mark Messier, Esa Tikkanen, Adam Graves and Mike Gartner.

All five were there last season, when no one could believe how badly the Rangers performed. And there is no debate over what has made the difference this season.

Keenan is the answer.

"Keenan gets the most out of his guys every night," said Washington left wing Craig Berube. "The guys on that team know if they don't play his way, they're not going to play."


Opponent: New York Rangers

Site: USAir Arena, Landover

Time: 7:35


Radio: WMAL (630 AM)

Tickets: 3,000 available

Outlook: The Capitals, 5-2 in their past seven games, face the hottest team in the NHL. The Rangers are on a 22-3 streak that has produced an overall record of 23-8-3, including last night's 3-2 loss at Florida. The good news for the Caps is that C Dale Hunter is in the lineup for the first time since tearing his medial collateral ligament against the Rangers on Nov. 28. Caps RW Peter Bondra (broken left hand) and D Al Iafrate (sprained right knee) are day-to-day.

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