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This Faceoff Is Eric vs. Eric

After struggling last season with the Rangers, a healthy Lindros takes on his toughest opponent -- himself.

September 14, 2003|Arthur Staple | Newsday

BURLINGTON, Vt. — Eric Lindros finally had a healthy offseason. But this summer presented a different kind of challenge for No. 88, who joined his teammates for physicals at the start of his third Rangers training camp.

At 30, Lindros did not face an offseason filled with doubts about ever playing again because of his physical condition. In some ways, this was worse -- people questioned his ability after a 19-goal, 53-point season of frustration in 2002-03.

"One big, massive snowball," was how Lindros termed the worst healthy season of his career. It started with a rash of penalties that resulted in the 6-4, 250-pound center getting benched for a period in early November. After that, he never seemed to be able to regain the scoring touch that returned in his first Rangers season, one that followed 18 idle months due to concussions and a dispute with the Flyers.

The snowball did not melt once the Rangers' dismal season ended, either. There were rampant rumors that Lindros was either on his way out of New York via trade, or simply via buyout of his unique contract, which rewards him for staying healthy (he gets $75,000 per game) but not for reaching other incentive goals. The doubts not only came from without, this time they came from within.

"There's no animosity there," said Nick Kypreos, the former Ranger and current television analyst in Canada who is a close friend of Lindros. "This is not Eric vs. the Rangers because of trade rumors and things like that. This is Eric vs. Eric. He has a lot to prove to the fans and the team, but I think he has more to prove to himself. This is the first real challenge of his life. For the first time, there's no one telling him how great he is."

So now he is playing for his next contract. He gets $3.3 million, plus as many $75,000 paydays as he can fit into a season. If things stay the same, when the league starts up again after next fall's threatened lockout, few teams will take a chance on him.

Lindros already has made a couple of changes. He swears he is no lighter than when he left in April, but others around the Rangers say he's close to 240 pounds than his usual 250; even his face looks thinner. "I got rid of the long runs that always seemed to stay with my body for days afterward," he said. "I did more work on the bike, less impact. I skated more than I usually do."

He also changed sticks, something Coach Glen Sather had been on Lindros to do since the start of last season. "I'll go to my grave thinking his stick was a big part of his problem," Sather said. "You lose that fraction of a second if you're worried the puck's going to hop off your stick and it changes everything."

Lindros has gone back to a "wood-glass" stick.The full composite he used last season never quite felt right, even with season-long tinkering. Which meant he never felt quite right.

"It's tough to make distinct changes in the middle of the season," Lindros said. "With the other stick, there were times that were good and times that were frustrating. I didn't feel comfortable with the puck, bottom line. If you want to equate that to a lack of' confidence, sure, go ahead."

The Rangers cannot afford another snowball season from Lindros. Sather and Co. saw what can happen when No. 88 is his old self -- they were in first place at the All-Star break in 2001-02 -- and they have seen how hard Lindros is on himself.

"You don't go three feet without feeling it," he said of his thoughts this past offseason. The slings and arrows of rumored deals are unpleasant, but only a nuisance. "What hurts more is feeling it."

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