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His injury would finally force him from the lineup. Without him, the Rangers played better, becoming more confident, aggressive, consistent, and exciting. In their 6-3-3 stretch, they beat strong teams Philly, Toronto, and Phoenix. They beat Boston although they were outplayed, then lost a seesaw thriller return match in the waning minutes. They tied Dallas, the NHL's top team. They lost to Buffalo in OT and were simply outclassed by Ottawa.
For a spell, the Garden came alive again. The players explained they had to dig deeper to overcome Gretzky's loss and to chase their fading playoff hopes. Mike Richter, Ulf Samuelsson, and Adam Graves had performed well all year, but captain Brian Leetch seemed to rush the puck with his old speed and authority, Kevin Stevens returned from the shadows, Mathieu Schneider fired cannons from the point. John MacLean got hot. And three young centers Nedved, Marc Savard, and Manny Malhotra played dominant roles. For the first time in what seemed like an eternity, the Rangers dictated the style of play.
No contribution matttered more than 18-year-old Malhotra's, whose skating, stickhandling, and boardwork turned the Garden flirtation with his youth into a growing infatuation, vindicating Neil Smith's judgment not to deal him for Pavel Bure. The Daily News's Filip Bondy wondered if Gretzky's injury saved Muckler's job since the coach was reluctant to cut Gretzky's ice time. Bondy might have added Smith's job, too, because Gretzky's absence showcased the GM's rebuilding blocks.
Finally, in mid March, Rick Carpiniello in Gannett's suburban papers, asked THE question: "Are the Rangers better off without Gretzky?" He resoundingly answered: "NO!" noting that Gretzky remains "their best center, their leading scorer, their power play anchor, one of their core leaders, and one of the top playmakers in the entire NHL."
But in a telling paragraph, Carpiniello predicted Mucker would have to find a place for Gretzky without cutting much from the ice time of his three young centers, especially Malhotra, who was often benched when Gretzky played.
"When those three centers divided up Gretzky's 19-21 minutes a game, there was a noticeable difference for one reason. They all fly. So the average-speed Rangers suddenly looked several steps faster. The enthusiasm of the three young players, and the willingness to compete, gave the Rangers an effective forecheck and pressure on the puck in the neutral zone."
No surprise, Gretzky accelerated his comeback. But Muckler now had four centers in a three-line game. Malhotra was forced to the bench, diminishing the team's speed and forechecking.
Muckler adjusted. He reunited Gretzky and Nedved for the Islanders game, Gretzky volunteering for left wing. Malhotra returned to full duty. But Ranger luck Nedved injured his rib cage. With his status uncertain, we may not learn this season if Muckler's scheme will work.
"Two things make me think he'll be back," The Calgary Sun's Taylor wrote. "Gretzky remains a rink rat, loving everything about the game, from the thrill of competition to the sound of the Zamboni sliding over the newly gleaming ice.
"That, and the dream of skating around Madison Square Garden with the Rangers, hoisting the Stanley Cup one more time. If they re-sign Brian Leetch and are active enough in the free agent market to give it even a tinge of hope, I doubt he could turn away."
But what if the Rangers don't land a Recchi or Fleury, or want to develop their future and not contend now? Will Gretzky, whose prime motivation is always winning the Cup, want to be on a rebuilding team for his final kick at the can?
Or will he view next season as one last crusade, one more chance to defy the odds and baffle critics? "He has a great analytical mind," a colleague remarked last week, "and knows more hockey than you and I and 10 other writers will ever know, combined."
True. So much so that, whatever decision Gretzky reaches, it'll easily be the right one.