<
>

Rangers edge Flyers to clinch first playoff spot since '97

NEW YORK (AP) -- Kevin Weekes was still holding court with a
small group of reporters in the New York Rangers' locker room when
a friendly face stopped by to congratulate him.

Henrik Lundqvist, the rookie who wrested the Rangers No. 1 goalie position away from Weekes, was all smiles after New York's 3-2 shootout victory over the Philadelphia Flyers lifted the
Rangers into the playoffs for the first time since 1997.

Michael Nylander scored in regulation and the shootout, and
Martin Straka added a goal for the Rangers, who are three points
ahead of the Flyers. Both teams have seven games left.

"This isn't the only goal we have, but it's certainly part of
it," general manager Glen Sather said.

Once the Rangers got into overtime, the NHL's longest active
playoff drought ended. But New York, a club some picked to finish
last in the 30-team league, isn't content with reaching the
postseason. The Rangers are gunning for a division title, too.

"We're speaking kind of casually now that we did clinch a
playoff berth, but when you stop and think about what that means
and how that looked in August and how that looked in September ...
to now be in this position it's very gratifying," Weekes said.

Usually it is Lundqvist who is tucked in a corner of the
locker room after a Rangers win. But his sore hip put him into a
suit instead of the net on this night, and left New York's biggest
game of the season in the hands of Weekes -- who has become a bit of
a villain to the home fans who want to see Lundqvist play.

Boos rained on Weekes when New York's 1-0 lead turned into a 2-1
deficit by the end of the second period. But he held his ground in
the third, made several key saves -- including breakaway stops -- and
heard his name cheered.

"The fans have supported our team all year long and fallen in
love with some of our players, certainly my partner Henrik, and
that's fine," said Weekes, who earned his first home victory since
Nov. 19; he was 0-3-1 in that span. "When they cheer us on, we
feed off their positivism."

Weekes did just that.

The biggest of his 21 saves were in the third period when he
turned aside Sami Kapanen's short-handed breakaway, made a rolling
stop on Joni Pitkanen, and dived across the net to deny Jeff
Carter.

During a play stoppage, Weekes' teammates stood up at the bench
and smacked their sticks against the boards in appreciation of his
effort -- the one that earned him a fist tap and back slap from
Lundqvist after the game.

Quite a difference from the second frame, when Philadelphia got
goals from Mike Knuble and Simon Gagne to take the lead.

"He was outstanding," Nylander said. "He made some
unbelievable saves in some critical times. It was great to see."

Jaromir Jagr, who has an NHL-high 115 points, got seven of the
Rangers' 18 shots in the period and tied a career best with 12
overall, but didn't directly factor in the goal that tied the game
-- and gave New York the point it needed to clinch a playoff berth.

Jagr's linemate Nylander won a faceoff in the Philadelphia zone.
His shot was stopped by Robert Esche. Straka got to the rebound and
snapped in a drive to get the Rangers even 5:34 into the third
period.

Jagr, who earlier in the game was stopped on a partial breakaway
by Esche and then had another drive snatched by the goalie's glove,
has nine of his 52 goals against Esche this season. He helped set
up Nylander's goal to extend his point streak to 12 games.

Esche made his second consecutive start over rookie Antero
Niittymaki and finished with 38 saves. New York is 4-1-2 against
Philadelphia and earned the first home victory for either team in
this season's series.

"We have to try to catch them," Flyers coach Ken Hitchcock
said. "We are a team that is getting better almost daily."

Game notes
The Rangers recalled G Al Montoya from Hartford of the AHL
to serve as Weekes' backup while Lundqvist is out. ... Knuble, formerly of
the Rangers, leads the Flyers in scoring against New York with six
goals and two assists.