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Old Rangers Bent On Delaying Lindros Era

Hockey: At 36, Gretzky and Messier long to drink again from Stanley Cup. Flyers are final hurdle in East.


PHILADELPHIA — When Mario Lemieux skated off the ice and into retirement last month, he told Philadelphia Flyer center Eric Lindros it was his time to carry the NHL into the next century. Wayne Gretzky, the NHL's all-time leading scorer, also believes the Lindros Era is about to dawn.

"I think he's a tremendous athlete, and I think he's the future of the game," Gretzky said.

Maybe so, but the future may not have arrived yet. Gretzky and his New York Ranger teammate, Mark Messier, have no intention of relinquishing their supremacy, not even after playing 18 seasons and winning 10 Stanley Cup championships between them.

This intersection of stars at opposite ends of their careers adds extra zest to the Eastern Conference finals, which begin tonight at the CoreStates Center.

Gretzky and Messier, both 36, rekindled memories of their feats with the great Edmonton Oiler teams of the 1980s as they helped the Rangers upset the Florida Panthers and New Jersey Devils in the first two rounds of the playoffs. Gretzky had four goals against the Panthers and two against the Devils and was part of a hard-working defensive ensemble that erased thoughts of New York's indifferent regular-season performance.

"I don't think we gave anybody any reason not to doubt us," Gretzky said of the Rangers, who were seeded fifth in the East. "I mean, we didn't have a very good year."

Lindros was equally instrumental in propelling Philadelphia to the conference finals for the second time in three years. The 24-year-old center and his wingers on the hulking "Legion of Doom" line accounted for eight of the Flyers' 20 goals against the Pittsburgh Penguins in the first round and seven of 21 against the Buffalo Sabres. On Thursday, rookie Dainius Zubrus was moved to that line, replacing Mikael Renberg.

"I have a great deal of respect for him," Gretzky said of Lindros. "It's a mutual respect that we have for each other."

There's no question the Flyers respect New York goaltender Mike Richter. A key figure in the Rangers' 1994 Cup triumph, Richter led Team USA to victory over Canada in the World Cup of Hockey last September. He was almost single-handedly responsible for the Rangers' upset of New Jersey, giving up only four goals on 182 shots. That raised his save percentage to an astounding .959 and reduced his goals-against average to 1.31.

"He was the best player on the U.S. club and the reason they won that tournament, in my mind," Flyer Coach Terry Murray said of the World Cup. "From what I see of him right now . . . he's right at that level again. He's a real difference for that hockey club."

By contrast, Philadelphia's goaltending picture is unsettled. Garth Snow, who compiled a mediocre .905 save percentage and 2.53 goals-against average in the first 11 playoff games, was replaced by veteran Ron Hextall for the finale against Buffalo. Hextall was less than spectacular, but the Flyers got by in five games.

Can they get past the Rangers with Hextall? He's 16-20-5 with a 3.29 goals-against average against them during the regular season, including back-to-back losses the last weekend of this season, and 8-5 with a 3.06 goals-against average in the playoffs. Murray has not revealed his starter, but he has long felt loyal to Hextall and probably will choose him over Snow.

The Rangers got to New Jersey's Martin Brodeur by creating traffic around the net, and they will try the same tactics to distract Hextall, who has been known to lose his concentration. The key to the Rangers' success against New Jersey, however, was a defensive cohesiveness they lacked much of the season. From good defense comes offensive chances, and the Rangers created goals with their diligence, not only with their skill. They will try that formula again.

"All of us who have won championships realized the same exact thing: You can't win championships if you don't play team defense," Gretzky said. "We got in that Florida series and we knew what we had to do to be successful, and each guy has done that."

Although the Rangers are without grinding forward Bill Berg, who has a broken leg, and standout winger Niklas Sundstrom, who has a broken arm, they got a lift against New Jersey from grinding winger Patrick Flatley and the ever-annoying Esa Tikkanen (seven goals, eight points). Flatley and Tikkanen flanked Gretzky against New Jersey, but Luc Robitaille also played with Gretzky. Philadelphia will probably use the line of Joel Otto, Trent Klatt and Shjon Podein against the Gretzky line.

The Flyers are bigger up front and they have averaged 4.1 goals a game to 2.3 for New York. They must get production from veteran center Dale Hawerchuk and forward Rod Brind'Amour (six goals, 11 points). Both acquitted themselves well in the previous rounds, as did rookie winger Zubrus (four goals, six points). The Flyers have the depth and size to play a physical game, in hopes of wearing the older Rangers down, and Philadelphia's strategy of driving to the net worked against Pittsburgh and Buffalo.

New York may have an edge on defense because of the stellar work of Brian Leetch, a finalist for the Norris Trophy. Leetch can lead the rush, but he doesn't hesitate to bang bodies. Otherwise, the Rangers' defense is slow, which may hurt them. The Flyers get their jump-start from Paul Coffey, a teammate of Gretzky and Messier on those Edmonton Cup winners, and Finnish rookie Janne Niinimaa has been impressive. Overall, their defense has been inconsistent and Karl Dykhuis has struggled. Muscular defenseman Kjell Samuelsson is doubtful for the series because of a neck injury.

"At the end of the day, and I've always said this, hard work wins," Gretzky said. "And the only way to beat hard work is to have talent and hard work. That's what wins ultimately."

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