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.