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With Howe History, Lemieux Gone and Gretzky Graying, Eric Lindros Is in Ascension as the NHL's...


PHILADELPHIA — Someday, Eric Lindros might look back at Game 3 of the Eastern Conference finals as the day he crossed the line separating promising from proven, wannabe from winner.

The Philadelphia Flyers were seconds from a 5-3 victory over the New York Rangers, who had pulled goalie Mike Richter. Lindros was racing for the puck with Ranger center Mark Messier, his childhood idol. Using his speed and strength, Lindros barged past Messier and scored into the open net, completing his first playoff hat trick.

Lindros later called the goal meaningless, but if its impact on the scoreboard was negligible, its symbolic value will resonate for years. That's because when Lindros overtook Messier and gave the Flyers an emphatic victory, he figuratively accepted the torch of leadership Mario Lemieux passed to him when Lemieux retired last month.

At 24, with five NHL seasons and several playoff disappointments behind him, the 6-foot-4, 236-pound center is on the brink of achieving the greatness predicted for him since he was drafted first overall by the Quebec Nordiques in 1991 and traded to the Flyers a year later for six players, two draft picks and $15 million. With four goals in his last two games, Lindros has carried the Flyers to a 3-1 lead over the Rangers in the conference finals, which resume today at the CoreStates Center in Philadelphia.

"He's at the top of his game right now, as good as I've seen him play," Messier said. "He possesses a lot more than I ever did at his age and certainly at this stage of his career. He's a legitimate superstar. I never really felt that I was in that category going through my career.

"He's a great player. I've never been around anybody who played with his size and strength and speed combined."

Lindros was long ago nicknamed "The Next One," a play on Wayne Gretzky's nickname, "The Great One." With Lemieux gone and Gretzky in the final years of his career, it is to Lindros that the mantle of leadership will fall.

He has worn it well in scoring 21 points in the playoffs and carrying the Flyers within a victory of the Stanley Cup finals, but he downplays the significance of Lemieux having anointed him the player who will lead the NHL into a new era.

"You [reporters] have made it a lot bigger than it is," Lindros said. "He just wished me well and gave me his best wishes. We just want to win hockey games. I don't think along those lines."

Lindros doesn't waste time considering how to lead. He simply leads and it becomes an example.

His controlled aggressiveness against the Rangers--who also tried to acquire him from Quebec but lost him to the Flyers on an arbitrator's decision--has been vital to the Flyers in a physical series. He was baited into retaliatory penalties several times in Philadelphia's second-round victory over Buffalo, but he generally curbed those impulses against the Rangers, taking a jab if it meant getting a power play for the Flyers.

Finally, he has realized he can't score or rattle an opponent from the penalty box. He still dishes out as many hits as he takes, but he's taking fewer of the inane penalties that used to cost the Flyers and needlessly keep him off the ice.

"I see Eric playing the game the right way now, and by that I mean early in his career . . . he was hunting people down and getting huge hits shift after shift. That's a difficult way to play," Flyer Coach Terry Murray said. "You're putting your team in a difficult situation because you're taking yourself out of the play. Now, he's more under control.

"He also has a greater understanding of the game. He finishes his checks when they're there but he's not taking himself out of the play."

Said Flyer General Manager Bob Clarke: "When he broke into the league, expectations were so high for him. It was unreasonable to expect a player at that age to do what people said he was going to do. Anybody could see he had the skills and the size and the toughness, but he still had to get experience in the league.

"He's developed at the proper pace. He's less reckless than he was and he plays more controlled, more solid."

Lindros has four goals and seven points against the Rangers, including his game-winner Friday with 6.8 seconds to play. That goal was a gem, scored after he took a pass from John LeClair on his backhand and got enough force on his shot to lift it over Richter.

Lindros' poise was as great as his skill, because had he hesitated or taken time to shift to his forehand, the scoring opportunity might have been lost. "You get lucky every once in a while," he said. "We had some chances in the end and finally one went in. It happened to be the one that was the lowest percentage, maybe."

As the playoffs have progressed and the intensity has increased, Lindros has stepped up his performance. He couldn't do that two years ago, when the Flyers were overrun by the New Jersey Devils in the East finals.

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