Rangers enjoying life at the top

ON THE NHL

February 22, 1994|By SANDRA McKee

Folks who follow the New York Rangers -- and who can miss them, with their gaudy 38-16-4 record atop the NHL standings? -- might be thinking they are going to run out of legs and energy at playoff time.

But no one can be wondering about Mark Messier, Adam Graves or Sergei Zubov.

Messier has played better as the season has progressed; Graves, with 40 goals, is 10 from the Rangers' all-time goal scoring record set by Vic Hadfield in 1971-72; and Zubov, a defenseman, is turning out to be the biggest surprise in the league, returning from an early stint in the minors to produce eight goals and 52 assists in 52 games.

"This is the most enjoyable season I've had," said Messier, who has 29 points in his past 16 games. "It's incredible. Everyone is working hard on the ice, and that makes what happens off the ice fun.

"[Coach Mike] Keenan has left no doubt about what he expects from us, and everyone has responded."

The Rangers have more wins than they did all of last season, when they finished 34-39-11.

"At this point in the season, as a coach, you're wondering if it is realistic to expect the kind of commitment, generally speaking, that we've had from these players for the entire season," said Keenan. "You're wondering if they'll continue to play at a .700-plus winning percentage, or even if it's proper to expect it.

"When you're in first place, it's hard to find a reason to win, and as I've mentioned before, the best clubs in this league have gone through cycles.

"Mark Messier has carried us since the All-Star break, without question, and probably for most of the season," Keenan said. "And you expect it from your best players. On the other hand, you look for responses from other players in these situations to make it a unique 84-game schedule."

Portland update

Defenseman Lorne Knauft joined the Portland Pirates (formerly the Baltimore Skipjacks) this past weekend, coming on loan from the Flint Generals of the Colonial Hockey League.

He scored two goals in as many games for the Pirates and also suffered a broken nose -- reportedly his seventh. The Pirates remain in second place in the American Hockey League's Northern Division, one point behind Adirondack.

Shootout question

Should the NHL have shootouts? It is a question under review by a committee established by commissioner Gary Bettman and headed by Pittsburgh Penguins owner Howard Baldwin.

But committee review or not, everyone has an opinion on the subject.

Mighty Ducks of Anaheim owner Michael Eisner wants it for the excitement it creates. But traditionalists, such as Wayne Gretzky and Washington Capitals president Dick Patrick, say forget about it.

"Let's just play until someone wins," Gretzky said. "If everyone knows that's how it is, that someone has to score, they'll try harder. Let's do it that way if we have to have a winner. No shootouts."

Patrick said he has seen shootouts at his daughter's soccer games, and left feeling they were a joke.

"The argument for it is that fans love it," he said. "But I think fans love it when their team wins. Maybe they should hold a shootout in every game after the first period, and then both teams will know that at the end of the night, if it's a tie, who is going to win.

"But I think the shootout is so different from what the game is all about. I don't find ties all that unacceptable."

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