Tighter and tighter, Mark Messier wrapped the tape around the fingers of his sore right hand. His stylish, light-brown suit and colorful tie clashed with the gathering storm on his face.
It was last Friday night, an hour after the New York Rangers defeated the Pittsburgh Penguins 3-1, two hours after Messier had beaten Penguin tough guy Ulf Samuelsson senseless with a vicious right cross and some savage stickwork, and nearly two seasons after Messier had arrived from the Edmonton Oilers promising to carry the Rangers to the Stanley Cup. He was leaning uncomfortably against a table in a deserted trainer's room in the depths of Madison Square Garden, nursing his battered reputation and pondering the Rangers' playoff hopes. At week's end the Rangers were clinging to fourth place, one point ahead of the hard-charging New York Islanders for the final playoff spot in the Patrick Division. The New Jersey Devils, who jumped over the Washington Capitals into second place last Sunday, were three points ahead of the Rangers.
"Pressure?" Messier said, looking up with daggers in his eyes. "I don't mind the pressure. The only pressure I'm under is pressure I've put on myself."
That alone would be enough to flatten a weaker man. Messier won five Cups with the Oilers, and he'll do anything to win a sixth. He still believes it's going to happen in June. Never mind the fact that the star-crossed Rangers haven't won a Cup since 1940 or that, at 32, Messier might lack the gas for another victory lap.
Last season it looked as if he might take one. Inspired by his example, the Rangers forged a 50-25-5 regular-season record, best in the NHL. But they squandered a two-games-to-one lead over Pittsburgh in the divisional finals and lost the series 4-2. Although it was scant consolation, Messier won the Hart Trophy as the league's MVP. More was expected of Messier and New York this year.
Instead, the Rangers went into the tank. Messier and coach Roger Neilson had an increasingly public argument over New York's style of play—Messier preferred an up-tempo system to Neilson's more conservative approach. Eventually, on Jan. 4, Neilson was fired. He didn't go quietly; rather, he quite correctly accused Messier of conspiring against him by poisoning the atmosphere in the Ranger dressing room.
Messier doesn't apologize. "This is a ruthless business," he says. "Sometimes you have to be ruthless in order to do the right thing."
Neilson stopped just short of saying that Messier had quit on him, an assertion that Messier hotly refutes. But as soon as Ron Smith took over as interim coach, Messier's touch miraculously returned. He was sidelined by a sprained ligament in his right wrist for six games in January and by bruised ribs for two games last week, but when relatively healthy, Messier has played like his old self, scoring and playmaking and occasionally running over people.
And as Messier goes, so go the Rangers. They were 6-2-2 in the last 10 games he played. In Quebec on Saturday—with Messier back in New York, resting his aching ribs—the Rangers were embarrassed 10-2 by the Nordiques. Seeking solace, New York players point to the way the Penguins struggled through most of last season and then blew through the playoffs to win a second straight Cup.
Except for the controversy surrounding Messier, nothing has disrupted the Rangers more than the loss of top defenseman Brian Leetch, who barreled headfirst into the boards against the St. Louis Blues on Dec. 17 and sustained nerve damage that has left him with a weakened left shoulder. His return is tentatively scheduled for next week. "I'm going to be able to do the things I like to do," says Leetch, who won the Norris Trophy last season as the league's best defenseman. "Just maybe not as well."
How encouraging. Ranger general manager Neil Smith is slightly more upbeat. "I'm confident we're going to be O.K.," he says. "This team's too good to miss the playoffs. But I'm very nervous."
He has reason to be. With a month to go in the regular season, no one is going to catch the first-place Penguins. And even though the Capitals, who had 71 points at week's end, fell to third place, a favorable late-season schedule should help them secure a playoff spot. That leaves the Devils, the Rangers and the Islanders to compete for the division's final two tickets to the postseason. It's the first time the rivals have gone head-to-head-to-head in this sort of scramble.
"I've always wondered what it would be like if all three of these teams had to beat each other's brains out to get into the playoffs," says Ron Smith, who spent a season and a half as associate coach of the Devils until joining the Ranger organization in 1989. "Now I know. It's a three-ring circus. No, it's a soap opera. Or maybe a love triangle. No, not a love triangle. A hate triangle."
Although they play their home games in suburban outposts on opposite sides of Manhattan, the Islanders and the Devils are united in their distaste for the rich, haughty Rangers. "It's such a high to beat them," says Claude Loiselle, an Islander center who played in New Jersey from 1986 to '89. "The Rangers have the biggest following. And they've been successful, up to a point."
That's a polite way of echoing the mantra of Ranger-haters from Metuchen, N.J., to Montauk, N.Y.: 19-40! 19-40! 19-40! That nettlesome chant originated years ago at the Nassau Coliseum, in Uniondale, N.Y., 25 miles east of Manhattan, where the Islanders have gone 11-0-3 against the Rangers since 1989.
In the decade since they won the last of their four straight Stanley Cups, the Isles have suffered through a gradual erosion of talent and fans. The decline cost general manager Bill Torrey his job last summer after the Islanders missed the playoffs for the third time in four seasons. But Torrey, who built the Islander dynasty, left only after completing the framework for a possible second championship run.
Early last season he sent center Pat LaFontaine and forward Randy Wood to the Buffalo Sabres for a package of players that included center Pierre Turgeon. Then, on draft day last June, Torrey traded up and grabbed defenseman Darius Kasparaitis with the fifth pick.
Turgeon, with 104 points on 43 goals and 61 assists through last weekend, has quietly become the dominant player in the New York area. Painfully shy and lacking confidence, Turgeon, 23, does not yet believe he is as good as he is. Linemate Steve Thomas feels compelled to remind Turgeon what a force he has become: "I keep telling him he's as good as Messier. I think Pierre needs to know that he's one of the top five players in the game. There's no reason for him to be intimidated by anyone."
Turgeon should take a lesson from Kasparaitis, a 5'11", 187-pound Lithuanian whippet who thinks he's a battering ram. Kasparaitis unerringly challenges the best, and often the biggest, players on the ice. He has run headlong into Lemieux, Messier, Brett Hull and Eric Lindros without concern for his physical wellbeing or fear of reprisal. Messier has already punched him in the head, and he got under Lemieux's skin so deeply that Lemieux, the game's consummate advocate of clean play, cross-checked him twice. "The way I play is NHL style, no?" Kasparaitis says with a grin. "Always looking to hit someone."
Even in practice. Last fall, after he hip-checked one teammate too many, Kasparaitis drew a warning from Islander enforcer Mick Vukota. Of course, he ignored it. "Next time I got the puck," Vukota says, "I shot it off his foot and gave him a slash on his forearm, and he went down. I said to myself, That should take care of him. Next thing I know, he's trying to trade places in line with another defenseman so that he could go against me again. Luckily the coach blew the whistle." Luckily for whom?
Kasparaitis plays with a cockiness that borders on glee. It's catching on, as the young Isles discover that being in a race can be fun. "This club is on its way," says coach Al Arbour, who also led the Islanders during their glory days. "It's not there yet, but it's on its way."
Arbour, 60, had coached 1,505 games at week's end, more than anyone else in NHL history. He retired from coaching in 1986, only to answer Torrey's distress call two years later. This could be his last hurrah. "I just want to get something going here that's going to be solid," Arbour says. "And then I'll move on to something else. This job is rewarding, sure, but the frustration is overbearing at times."
You don't have to tell that to Herb Brooks, who replaced Tom McVie as the Devil coach this season. Since he led Team USA to the Miracle on Ice at the 1980 Olympics, Brooks, 46, has been fired by the Rangers, in '85, and the Minnesota North Stars, in '88. This is his third, and possibly last, NHL head coaching job, and at times he seems to be wound so tight that his spring is about to break.
Maybe that's because the rest of the world has caught up with him. Brooks pioneered hybrid hockey, a blend of the free-flowing European and hard-hitting North American styles. It was unique in the 1980s. Everyone uses it in the '90s.
The faceless Devils ought to be Brooks's kind of team. They have Canadians, Americans, Russians, a Finn, a Swede, a Czech and a Slovak. But despite New Jersey's multinationalism, Brooks has found to his disappointment that the Devils are a bust at what the players call Herbie Hockey. They're too big, too slow, too prone to muck in the corners. Playing aggressive defense and a simple dump-and-chase style, they've somehow worked their way into the best position of any of the New York-area teams for the stretch drive. Still, the tension is palpable. "We're not satisfied," says New Jersey general manager Lou Lamoriello, who fired McVie after a 38-31-11 season, the best in the franchise's 11-year history. "We feel as though we should be doing better than we're doing."
Curiously, Brooks has spent much of the season alienating his best players. In the Newark Star-Ledger he called veteran center Peter Stastny's $700,000 salary "the biggest heist since the Brinks robbery." Of leading scorer Claude Lemieux, he was quoted as saying, "He's a cancer. I want him out of here." Lemieux, the butt of trade rumors all season, reacted with good humor. "I am a Cancer," he said. "I was born on July 16."
Lemieux, a right wing, is like Kasparaitis, only meaner. He's squinty-eyed, sharp-tongued and abrasive, and he has a tendency to treat teammates and opponents the same way. He's loath to come off the ice at the end of a shift, and he never met a shot he didn't like. But he's tough, he's colorful and he hates the Rangers, qualities the Devils ought to appreciate. "He was always a thorn in everyone's side," says McVie, now an assistant coach with the Boston Bruins. "He's also one of the fiercest competitors that I have ever been associated with. If guys weren't working, he got in their face and told them. You don't have to like him, but, dammit, respect his talent and intensity."
In 1986, when he was playing for the Montreal Canadiens in the Stanley Cup finals, Lemieux bit Jim Peplinski of the Calgary Flames during a bench-clearing brawl. Says Chicago Blackhawk defense-man Chris Chelios, who played with Lemieux on the Canadiens, "He's a passionate guy." So was Dracula. The Devils aren't likely to get to the finals, but perhaps the team doctor should keep a supply of tetanus vaccine on hand just in case.
Sadly, there aren't many bridge-and-tunnel battles left this season. The Rangers will play the Devils and the Islanders one time each, and the Devils and the Isles play each other twice. The stakes are highest for the Devils and the Rangers. For the up-and-coming Islanders, it's pretty much a lark. If the Devils don't make the playoffs, Brooks might be offered up as a sacrifice by Lamoriello, and the future of hockey in New Jersey might be in doubt. How long can a team hold out at the cavernous Byrne Meadowlands Arena, playing before half-empty stands? If the Rangers don't play in the postseason, the bean counters at the Garden could look to dump high-salaried veterans—say, for example, Messier. Ron Smith would be a goner, and Neil Smith's future might be in doubt. "I'm in my fifth month of agony here," Neil Smith says ruefully. "Finally, I think I'm seeing a big white light at the end of the tunnel."
But what if it's a train?