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Tighter and tighter, Mark Messier wrapped the tape around the fingers of his sore right hand. His stylish, light-brown suit and colorful tie clashed with the gathering storm on his face.
It was last Friday night, an hour after the New York Rangers defeated the Pittsburgh Penguins 3-1, two hours after Messier had beaten Penguin tough guy Ulf Samuelsson senseless with a vicious right cross and some savage stickwork, and nearly two seasons after Messier had arrived from the Edmonton Oilers promising to carry the Rangers to the Stanley Cup. He was leaning uncomfortably against a table in a deserted trainer's room in the depths of Madison Square Garden, nursing his battered reputation and pondering the Rangers' playoff hopes. At week's end the Rangers were clinging to fourth place, one point ahead of the hard-charging New York Islanders for the final playoff spot in the Patrick Division. The New Jersey Devils, who jumped over the Washington Capitals into second place last Sunday, were three points ahead of the Rangers.
"Pressure?" Messier said, looking up with daggers in his eyes. "I don't mind the pressure. The only pressure I'm under is pressure I've put on myself."
That alone would be enough to flatten a weaker man. Messier won five Cups with the Oilers, and he'll do anything to win a sixth. He still believes it's going to happen in June. Never mind the fact that the star-crossed Rangers haven't won a Cup since 1940 or that, at 32, Messier might lack the gas for another victory lap.
Last season it looked as if he might take one. Inspired by his example, the Rangers forged a 50-25-5 regular-season record, best in the NHL. But they squandered a two-games-to-one lead over Pittsburgh in the divisional finals and lost the series 4-2. Although it was scant consolation, Messier won the Hart Trophy as the league's MVP. More was expected of Messier and New York this year.
Instead, the Rangers went into the tank. Messier and coach Roger Neilson had an increasingly public argument over New York's style of play—Messier preferred an up-tempo system to Neilson's more conservative approach. Eventually, on Jan. 4, Neilson was fired. He didn't go quietly; rather, he quite correctly accused Messier of conspiring against him by poisoning the atmosphere in the Ranger dressing room.
Messier doesn't apologize. "This is a ruthless business," he says. "Sometimes you have to be ruthless in order to do the right thing."
Neilson stopped just short of saying that Messier had quit on him, an assertion that Messier hotly refutes. But as soon as Ron Smith took over as interim coach, Messier's touch miraculously returned. He was sidelined by a sprained ligament in his right wrist for six games in January and by bruised ribs for two games last week, but when relatively healthy, Messier has played like his old self, scoring and playmaking and occasionally running over people.
And as Messier goes, so go the Rangers. They were 6-2-2 in the last 10 games he played. In Quebec on Saturday—with Messier back in New York, resting his aching ribs—the Rangers were embarrassed 10-2 by the Nordiques. Seeking solace, New York players point to the way the Penguins struggled through most of last season and then blew through the playoffs to win a second straight Cup.
Except for the controversy surrounding Messier, nothing has disrupted the Rangers more than the loss of top defenseman Brian Leetch, who barreled headfirst into the boards against the St. Louis Blues on Dec. 17 and sustained nerve damage that has left him with a weakened left shoulder. His return is tentatively scheduled for next week. "I'm going to be able to do the things I like to do," says Leetch, who won the Norris Trophy last season as the league's best defenseman. "Just maybe not as well."