Keenan readies his Rangers

April 07, 1994|By Newsday

NEW YORK -- Mike Keenan pulled a large yellow pad from his desk and scribbled three columns: Panthers, Flyers and Islanders, and listed the remaining games.

"You need a crystal ball to come up with the answer to this one," he said. "If Florida wins against Philly and the Isles, they probably put themselves in."

The Rangers' coach has been watching with interest the race for the final Eastern Conference playoff spot, which could come down to the last day of the regular season. But he is not preoccupied with it. Juggling his own team has become a task -- a welcome one -- since the March trading deadline brought him four new players.

"My comfort level has gone up 50 percent or more," he said.

Why is Keenan so content? It's not so much the NHL-best 107 points but because he has four lines of players who can check, and most of them can score. Not only that, but Keenan believes he has at least nine forwards who can kill penalties and rotate on the power play, giving him much more versatility.

And even though Mark Messier has not had a goal in 22 games, the rest of the offense has come through and carried the Rangers to a 6-1-1 record since the March 21 trades.

"The balance has improved, and when you have an improved balance you have more depth," Keenan said. "So another team now is trying to check Mark's line, for example. That's been going on now for some time. Mark's stats are down; he's not scoring. People are trying to make the playoffs, and they have checking lines on him.

"[The] last game, Roger [Neilson] spent most of the game trying to check Mark. We had the last change, but I didn't try to free him up from that because I felt if [Neilson] puts all his best checkers on that line we'll have the other line to come back with."

That would be Stephane Matteau, Alexei Kovalev and Steve Larmer, Esa Tikkanen, Sergei Nemchinov (one goal in the 3-2 victory) and Brian Noonan. And Greg Gilbert, Craig MacTavish and Joe Kocur.

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