RYE, N.Y. — Wayne Gretzky and Mark Messier have heard questions about their age before, but they've always proved the skeptics wrong.
They're only a few weeks older than when the New York Rangers overcame series-opening losses to the Florida Panthers and New Jersey Devils in the first two rounds of the playoffs. However, the physical style and offensive versatility of the Philadelphia Flyers is wearing on the Rangers, who rely so much on the two 36-year-old centers.
Combine that with a series of Ranger injuries, and the Flyers' 2-1 lead in the Eastern Conference finals suddenly looks forbidding.
"We have to play better or we're going to be in trouble," Gretzky said Thursday, as the Rangers prepared for Game 4 today at Madison Square Garden. "We have to make a team that talented play the entire 200 feet."
Gretzky and Messier have been playing since last August, when camp began for the World Cup of Hockey, but Gretzky said he sees no signs of fatigue in Messier. "Mark has played hard and strong. I'm sure Mark will have a solid game [today]," Gretzky said. "We're not overly concerned about Mark."
Ranger defenseman Alexander Karpovtsev is in Moscow for his mother's funeral and won't play. Ken Gernander (concussion and separated shoulder) is also out. . . . The Phoenix Coyotes signed Jocelyn Lemieux, 29, to a two-year contract. He will receive $300,000 in base salary in 1997-98 and $350,000 the next season.