New York Rangers\' Scott Gomez, center, celebrates with teammates Marc Staal, left, and Chris Drury, right, after scoring during the third period of a hockey game against the New York Islanders, Thursday, March 6, 2008 in New York. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-Frank Franklin II
The New York Rangers have crashed the party in the chase for first place in the NHL's wide-open Eastern Conference.
The Blueshirts have picked up 23 of a possible 26 points in their last 13 games to vault themselves right in the mix with Montreal, New Jersey, Pittsburgh and Ottawa for the conference title.
"We've had that goal all along," Rangers centre Scott Gomez told The Canadian Press on Wednesday. "It's one thing to get into the playoffs, but want get in as high as we can."
The Rangers are only four points behind top spot in the conference thanks to a 10-0-3 run.
"Our objective is whoever the taillights are in front of us - that's who we'll chase," said Rangers head coach Tom Renney. "By doing that, I think it provides a more definite objective, a more clear focus. We hope that the byproduct of all of that is a conference championship.
"We know no one is going to hand that to us and we're playing against some very good teams that are ahead of us coming up."
That the Rangers are contending for the conference lead is hardly a surprise, but what took so long?
"Every guy here would be the first to tell you that it took longer than we liked and we finally found the right line combinations," said Gomez. "We're starting to really realize what it's going to take night in and night out to win. And we're all getting the sense that if we play this way, we're a tough team to beat."
They were a favourite in the East along with Ottawa last September after picking up key stars Gomez and Chris Drury in free agency but really stumbled around the playoff bubble all season long before finally getting going in early February.
"We knew coming into the season, because of the acquisitions, that we were going to be one of those teams touted as being as a contender," said Renney. "We also had the presence of mind to know that it was going to take time, that we were going to have to assimilate some players into our lineup, make some adjustments and find the right combinations of people.
"At the end of the day, it's chemistry over biology as far as I'm concerned and it takes time to do that. So we just stuck with it, stayed patient, kept working hard and tried to define our game."
Renney's patience with his group his paying off and it's why he's one of the better coaches in the game. Teams that make a lot of off-season changes generally take a while to come together - especially when bringing in the two centres who will play the most minutes. Now the Rangers are getting hot at the right time of the season, similar to San Jose in the West.
The Rangers have gone 13 straight games with a least a point, the longest such streak in the NHL this season and the longest for New York since going 14 in 1993-94 - their last Stanley Cup triumph.
And Drury and Gomez are a big reason why. Both have lived up to their billing.
"They've been good for us all season long, even under the circumstances of having to get the right fit of people with them," said Renney. "They've been real professionals. They come from winners - it's just that simple. Just to have that mentality and have the ability to cope with the ebb and flow of a hockey season is important.
"What's nice for these guys now, is that they've begun to be recognized for the players that for us they've been along."
There are few louder places than Madison Square Garden and these days the place is absolutely buzzing.
"There's no greater thrill than winning, especially winning in New York City," said Gomez, who leads the Rangers with 66 points (15-51) in 70 games including a plus-11 rating ."The fans are getting behind us. It took a while for us to play like this and I wish it could have come quicker but it didn't. But hey, maybe we're peaking at the right time."
Their beloved Rangers appear headed to the playoffs for a third consecutive season after missing the post-season for seven consecutive years heading into the NHL lockout.
"First of all we've been able to deliver to a point on our promise coming out of the lockout that we were going to be a more competitive team, integrate more youth in our lineup and show a commitment to the long-term objectives of this program, too," said Renney. "In the meantime we've been able to be pretty competitive. It's a fun place to be.
"Our fans are as good any in the league. So it's a fun place to play."
And the feeling in the dressing room is nothing but positive.
"We've had a very good group all year long," said Renney. "And our leadership has been terrific. I give Jaromir (Jagr) a lot of credit for that."
Jagr, 36, needs to reach 84 points to trigger an automatic extension for next season in his contract but with 59 points (18-41) at this point and only 12 games remaining, he's probably going to fall short. But Renney says the Czech star hasn't let that affect his play.
"He didn't care about that, it was about winning and making sure this team applied itself to the best of its ability," said Renney. "And then you've got Brendan (Shanahan), and Martin Straka, and Gomer and Dru (Drury) and Jason Struckwick - who goes under the radar for having the ability of galvanizing the room. So it is a very good room.
"The guys at this time of the season, it's spring time, the days are a little bit longer, we're starting to see some sunshine, the finish line is in sight, it's an exciting time of the year."
Gomez, who has 14 points (3-11) during the 13-game stretch, says it isn't time to sit back and be impressed by what they've done.
"You can't really enjoy it," he said. "We got to keep winning. We want to see how high we can go. It just seems every game is so big right now."