The New York Rangers are about the best team money can buy, and at the halfway point of the NHL season, they're demonstrating their worth.
The Rangers (27-11-7), after a slow start, have risen into a first-place tie with the Detroit Red Wings for the NHL's best record.
The Red Wings (29-9-3), who are to visit the Washington Capitals tomorrow at USAir Arena, are trying to get back to the Stanley Cup finals, where they were defeated in four straight by the New Jersey Devils last spring.
The Rangers are trying to earn their second Stanley Cup in three years, after having gone without one for the previous 54 seasons.
If money can buy success, Rangers president Neil Smith should be resting easy. He surrounded Mark Messier with offensive and defensive help, bringing in forwards Pat Verbeek, Luc Robitaille and Ray Ferraro and defensemen Ulf Samuelsson, Doug Lidster and Bruce Driver.
"I feel actually very excited, because you can build the best and most expensive race car and it usually doesn't win the race," said Smith, when asked if he were relieved that his high-priced team has rounded into shape.
"But this team, there seems to be a lot of things gelling together for us. We have a lot of players who really want to play here and like each other. . . . The whole package is coming together.
"I can't say I knew we'd be here at the halfway point. But I certainly hoped. . . . On paper I felt that, but it doesn't always translate. There were a lot of things I didn't know would happen."
During a conference call yesterday, Messier, who has 16 goals and 20 assists in the past 22 games, had this to say:
On reports that Wayne Gretkzy could become available after a meeting next week with his agent and the new owners of the Los Angeles Kings: "It's pretty preliminary, but it would be fantastic. . . . I think everyone finds it very hard to believe he'll be let go out of L.A. But if it is indeed true, I'm sure we could find a locker for him here in New York."
On former Rangers coach Mike Keenan's returning to Madison Square Garden Sunday for the first time since leaving the then-Stanley Cup champions for St. Louis: "For me personally, he was a huge part of us winning the Stanley Cup here, and I think there will be a lot of people who recognize that and a lot who feel disappointed that he left. . . . But we've played them once in St. Louis already, and think that removes much of the emotionalism for us."
Ducks in mighty struggle
Jack Ferreira, vice president and general manager of the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim, says the first half of this season has been unusual.
"I've never before been associated with a team that had nine regulars out of the lineup at one time," said Ferreira, who has been in pro hockey for 21 years, noting the Ducks played all of December without seven forwards and two defensemen. "And we're still without four of them."
One of them, defenseman Milos Holan, who suffers from a form of leukemia, is preparing for a March bone-marrow transplant.
"I don't think we'll see him back next season," said Ferreira. "I really feel, if he can come back a year and a half from now, that will be good.
"But I don't even think of that. He has a 5-year-old and a wife who is expecting. And if you'd have seen him last week, when he found out there was a donor . . . well, he was bouncing around practice, there was so much life to him -- because he now has a chance at life."
Two not enough
The Panthers, who surprised almost everyone with their first-half performance, have two players on the All-Star team that plays in Boston Jan. 20. But that's not enough to satisfy goalie John Vanbiesbrouck, who was named with right wing Scott Mellanby.
"A lot of other guys helped us get where we are and warrant being in this game," said Vanbiesbrouck, who probably had defenseman Gord Murphy (six goals, 18 assists) at the top of the "should have been" list.