How encouraging. Ranger general manager Neil Smith is slightly more upbeat. "I'm confident we're going to be O.K.," he says. "This team's too good to miss the playoffs. But I'm very nervous."
He has reason to be. With a month to go in the regular season, no one is going to catch the first-place Penguins. And even though the Capitals, who had 71 points at week's end, fell to third place, a favorable late-season schedule should help them secure a playoff spot. That leaves the Devils, the Rangers and the Islanders to compete for the division's final two tickets to the postseason. It's the first time the rivals have gone head-to-head-to-head in this sort of scramble.
"I've always wondered what it would be like if all three of these teams had to beat each other's brains out to get into the playoffs," says Ron Smith, who spent a season and a half as associate coach of the Devils until joining the Ranger organization in 1989. "Now I know. It's a three-ring circus. No, it's a soap opera. Or maybe a love triangle. No, not a love triangle. A hate triangle."
Although they play their home games in suburban outposts on opposite sides of Manhattan, the Islanders and the Devils are united in their distaste for the rich, haughty Rangers. "It's such a high to beat them," says Claude Loiselle, an Islander center who played in New Jersey from 1986 to '89. "The Rangers have the biggest following. And they've been successful, up to a point."
That's a polite way of echoing the mantra of Ranger-haters from Metuchen, N.J., to Montauk, N.Y.: 19-40! 19-40! 19-40! That nettlesome chant originated years ago at the Nassau Coliseum, in Uniondale, N.Y., 25 miles east of Manhattan, where the Islanders have gone 11-0-3 against the Rangers since 1989.
In the decade since they won the last of their four straight Stanley Cups, the Isles have suffered through a gradual erosion of talent and fans. The decline cost general manager Bill Torrey his job last summer after the Islanders missed the playoffs for the third time in four seasons. But Torrey, who built the Islander dynasty, left only after completing the framework for a possible second championship run.
Early last season he sent center Pat LaFontaine and forward Randy Wood to the Buffalo Sabres for a package of players that included center Pierre Turgeon. Then, on draft day last June, Torrey traded up and grabbed defenseman Darius Kasparaitis with the fifth pick.
Turgeon, with 104 points on 43 goals and 61 assists through last weekend, has quietly become the dominant player in the New York area. Painfully shy and lacking confidence, Turgeon, 23, does not yet believe he is as good as he is. Linemate Steve Thomas feels compelled to remind Turgeon what a force he has become: "I keep telling him he's as good as Messier. I think Pierre needs to know that he's one of the top five players in the game. There's no reason for him to be intimidated by anyone."
Turgeon should take a lesson from Kasparaitis, a 5'11", 187-pound Lithuanian whippet who thinks he's a battering ram. Kasparaitis unerringly challenges the best, and often the biggest, players on the ice. He has run headlong into Lemieux, Messier, Brett Hull and Eric Lindros without concern for his physical wellbeing or fear of reprisal. Messier has already punched him in the head, and he got under Lemieux's skin so deeply that Lemieux, the game's consummate advocate of clean play, cross-checked him twice. "The way I play is NHL style, no?" Kasparaitis says with a grin. "Always looking to hit someone."
Even in practice. Last fall, after he hip-checked one teammate too many, Kasparaitis drew a warning from Islander enforcer Mick Vukota. Of course, he ignored it. "Next time I got the puck," Vukota says, "I shot it off his foot and gave him a slash on his forearm, and he went down. I said to myself, That should take care of him. Next thing I know, he's trying to trade places in line with another defenseman so that he could go against me again. Luckily the coach blew the whistle." Luckily for whom?