The Greatest Sideshow on Earth: Gretz and Mess. Mess and Gretz. With Wayne Gretzky and Mark Messier (page 54) together again, the circus will never leave Madison Square Garden. Gretzky fills the Rangers' pressing need for a No. 2 center, a role that should suit him as long as he gets quality power-play time.
Caught in the Trap: Coach Colin Campbell will trap with his third and fourth lines, a switch from the attacking style the Rangers have used since 1993-94. Third-liner Niklas Sundstrom is a disciplined defensive center who can make the trap work.
Crazy for Leetch: Defenseman Brian Leetch—whose teammates, Campbell says, go "gaggly-goo" just watching him play—is primed to win another Norris Trophy.
The Defense Never Rests: Sooner or later Vezina Trophy-winning goalie Jim Carey is going to stop a puck in the playoffs, in which he has performed miserably the past two years. When he does, look out. Washington's defensemen are first-rate. Mark Tinordi, who usually plays against the opponent's best forward, never has received the praise he deserves. If young Sergei Gonchar and Brendan Witt stay together as a tandem, they will be one of the best pairs in the league within three years. Steady Calle Johansson and Sylvain Côté and the much-traveled Phil Housley complete the Big Six. The Caps' depth will allow general manager David Poile to deal for the scorer Washington has long needed.
Peter the Great: Forward Peter Bondra led the NHL in goals in the lockout-shortened 1994-95 season and scored 52 last year. He's the only player who had two four-goal games and two natural hat tricks in 1995-96.
At Least Something in Washington Works: No one likes playing the Capitals at USAir Arena because 1) no team works harder than the Caps and 2) the rink is a mausoleum. Of course, the Capitals must expend all that energy because, except for Bondra, they are painful to watch in the attacking zone.
No Names, but Big Games: If you're one of those who think the Panthers were simply an anonymous trap-playing team that rode effort and a gimmick to the Stanley Cup finals, then wake up and smell the rat droppings. Florida has at least four players—defensemen Ed Jovanovski and Rhett Warrener, winger Radek Dvorak and center Rob Niedermayer—who have just become or will soon become stars. There is talent in Miami, especially on defense.
The Coach: In a city with high-profile coaches Jimmy Johnson and Pat Riley, the Panthers' Doug MacLean faces as much pressure as anyone. He must guard against a Stanley Cup finals hangover and keep blending in new talent without destroying team chemistry, while still winning. "You can't let how well we did last year interrupt the building of the franchise," MacLean says.