The last time Wayne Gretzky was on the bench at Madison Square Garden, it was the final game of his historic playing career.
Gretzky, now the coach of the Phoenix Coyotes, will likely get a warm welcome when he returns to the Garden on Sunday, as the Coyotes play at the New York Rangers for the first time in more than five years.
Gretzky spent the final three seasons of his record-setting career in New York, playing at the Garden in his final game on April 18, 1999, when he recorded his record 2,857th point on a second-period assist. After the game, Gretzky skated laps around the rink to a standing ovation.
The Rangers (16-12-3) could probably use his scoring touch; they’re tied with the Islanders for the fewest goals (71) in the Eastern Conference. They’ve also allowed an NHL-low 70 goals, but New York has lost four of five, scoring more than two goals in a game just once over that span. That was in their last game, Wednesday’s 5-4 overtime loss to Washington.
New York led 2-0 in the first period and battled back from a pair of third-period deficits to force overtime, but were outshot 35-23.
“We just weren’t very brave tonight,” Rangers coach Tom Renney said. “And we’ve got to make sure that doesn’t appear on the radar moving forward or we’re going to have problems.”
Martin Straka had two goals to double his season total, but goalie Henrik Lundqvist’s struggles continued. Lundqvist, who had allowed four goals in consecutive games before shutting out New Jersey last Sunday, yielded five goals on 35 shots. In his last four games, he’s 1-2-1 with a 3.48 goals-against-average and .857 save percentage after going 14-9-1 with a 1.83 GAA and .930 save percentage in his first 24 games.
The Coyotes (14-16-0) last played at the Rangers in October 2002, but they’ve been in the New York metropolitan area all weekend. They lost to the Islanders 3-2 Thursday, then beat New Jersey 4-1 Saturday, just their second win in their last seven road games.
But they’ve now won three of five after a four-game losing streak, and two of three thus far on their six-game road trip. Away from home, they’ve been led by a pair of unlikely offensive forces in Fredrik Sjostrom and Martin Hanzal.
The duo has a combined 30 points this season, but has teamed up for 13 in the last three games. Their line, which also includes Radim Vrbata, had all four goals against the Devils, while Sjostrom had two goals and an assist despite missing much of the second period with an injury.
“Our line played well the whole game,” Sjostrom said. “This was huge for us.”
Goalie Ilya Bryzgalov will likely be back in net for Phoenix after getting the day off against the Devils. Backup Mikael Tellqvist had 30 saves in that game in his first start since Nov. 12, but Bryzgalov has been solid with a 2.33 GAA and .921 save percentage in 12 games since the Coyotes acquired him from Anaheim in November.
New York has won three straight against the Coyotes, but the teams have played only once since 2003, with the Rangers winning 7-3 on the road on Oct. 28, 2006. Jaromir Jagr had a goal and three assists while Straka had two goals and an assist.
The Phoenix franchise is just 1-8-1 in its last 10 games at Madison Square Garden, dating to 1991, when the team was still the Winnipeg Jets.