STILL GOING GREAT AT THE AGE OF 36, WAYNE GRETZKY AND MARK MESSIER REVIVED THEIR OLD MAGIC TO LEAD NEW YORK OVER FLORIDA

May 04, 1997

Were you guilty too? Had you begun to think of Wayne Gretzky as
the Great One Emeritus? Did you think it was time to put Mark
(Moose) Messier out to pasture?

Think again. In successive games last week Gretzky and Messier
of the New York Rangers covered themselves in glory, and in so
doing covered the Florida Panthers with a white sheet,
eliminating last season's Eastern Conference champions four
games to one in their first-round playoff series. There was
Gretzky, celebrating his 58th career hat trick in Game 4 in New
York, followed two nights later by Messier's two-goal,
three-point eruption in Florida. Note to both 36-year-old former
Edmonton Oilers: Forgive us for suspecting that you were no
longer capable of such heroics.

We stand corrected and a bit confused. Is this 1997 or 1987? Was
that Madison Square Garden Gretzky captivated in Game 4, scoring
three times in a span of 6:23 in a 3-2 Rangers win, or was it
Northlands Coliseum?

Wherever he has traveled in his illustrious 18-year NHL career,
Gretzky has amazed his teammates and coaches not just with his
ability to amass points but also with his ability to remember
the plays that produced them. His recall is also excellent when
it comes to slights, which he harbors and uses as fuel. In this
way, says Rangers winger Luc Robitaille, Gretzky is like Michael
Jordan. "Say something [critical] about him, he scores 50
points. He's telling you to shut up." Whatever Gretzky was
telling us with his play in this series, his voice went from a
whisper to a scream.

Pilloried, along with Messier, in the New York press for being
all but invisible in a 3-0 Game 1 loss to the Panthers, Gretzky
scored the winning goal in Game 2. In silencing some critics,
however, he gave others reason to mock. Game 2 was telecast on
Fox, whose much-despised FoxTrax puck--which contains a computer
chip that highlights the puck on television--must reach 65 mph
before it will change from blue to red on your TV screen.
Gretzky's change-up goal failed to achieve that velocity, and
for several days his teammates teased him for scoring a "blue
goal."

Because of a scheduling conflict at Madison Square Garden, Games
3 and 4 had to be played on successive nights, which many
observers saw as a looming disaster for the home team. "Two
games in two nights? We had no chance," says New York general
manager Neil Smith, acidly parroting the pre-Game 3 story line.
"It was the old, decrepit, Geritol-swilling Rangers against the
virile, young, fleet-footed Panthers."

There seemed to be good reason for the skepticism. All season
New York had been maddeningly inconsistent. The Rangers finished
fifth in the conference (38-34-10), and with their lack of depth
and youth, they were not regarded as serious threats to win the
Stanley Cup. Their disciplined, physical play in the first
round, however, has prompted a hasty reassessment. In Mike
Richter they have a goaltender capable of confounding anyone. In
Brian Leetch they have the finest offensive defenseman in the
game. And in Gretzky and Messier they have two forces of nature
who have found their A games at the right time.

They're still plenty old. But so far this postseason, that
hasn't mattered. Before New York eked out a victory in Game
3--Robitaille tied it with 18.9 seconds left on assists from
Gretzky and Messier, and Esa Tikkanen won it with a blur of a
slap shot in overtime--the conventional wisdom was that the
Rangers had to win that one, because youth and fresh legs were
sure to prevail less than 24 hours later in Game 4.

Oddly, one of the oldest players in the Garden last Wednesday
was the one with the most hop. While younger men wilted, "Wayne
was asking for more ice time," said New York coach Colin
Campbell. The Rangers put in 23 flat, uninspired minutes before
Gretzky started playing as if he had stepped out of a time
machine.

None of his three goals would have been a "blue goal," and each
was prettier than the last. For goal number 1, he one-timed a
feed from Leetch into a yawning net. After his second score, a
rocket into the right corner of the top shelf, Gretzky skated to
the bench, where Messier said something to him that made him
smile. "Keep sniffing," advised the captain.

Thus was a tradition revived. In their salad days as Oilers,
whenever Gretzky had two goals in a game Messier would tell him
to "keep sniffing" for the hat trick. That's exactly what
Gretzky did, and his third goal evoked the Great One at his
greatest. Outmanned after carrying the puck into the right side
of the Florida zone, he slammed on the brakes, then circled to
virtually the same spot. He faked a shot--by now he was toying
with Panthers goalie John Vanbiesbrouck--then edged slightly to
his left, allowing a screen to form between him and the
goaltender. Only then did Gretzky rip a shot that caromed off
the left post and in. As Florida coach Doug McLean spat out his
gum in disgust, the Great One danced a brief, un-Gretzky-like
jig to celebrate his first hat trick in four years.

Inspired by his best friend's heroism, Messier nearly duplicated
the feat two nights later. When Messier arrived at Miami Arena
before Game 5, he wore the arresting mask his teammates refer to
as The Look. "He had it early," said Gretzky, who had shared a
cab with Tikkanen and Messier after the Rangers' Friday-morning
skate. "Tikk and I were trying to have a conversation, but Mark
wasn't participating."

On this day, The Look meant "Look out, Carkner." After drilling
Panthers' defenseman Terry Carkner with a hard check early in
his first shift, Messier scored on a breakaway 39 seconds into
the game. He scored again with 16 seconds left in the second
period and set up Tikkanen's series winner in overtime.

The 32-year-old Tikkanen, a gap-toothed, gimpy-kneed Finn with a
bad body and a barely decipherable polylingual dialect, is
another former Oiler. His second game-winning goal of the series
gave Edmonton East about a week to recuperate before starting
the conference semis.

Not that the Rangers need the rest.

COLOR PHOTO: BRUCE BENNETT/BENNETT STUDIOS Gretzky was pumped in Game 4 when he tallied a hat trick, his first in nearly four seasons. [Wayne Gretzky in game] COLOR PHOTO: ROBERT BECK Messier had The Look in Game 5, scoring twice and setting up the game-winning goal in overtime. [Mark Messier in game]
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)