Sure the New York Rangers had just earned a rare victory, 3-2 Friday night over the Washington Capitals, but the postgame questions mostly centered on Leetch—traded away two days earlier in a roster purge.
“His place in the team’s history and in the hearts of New Yorkers is well-entrenched,” Messier said. “He carried himself on and off the ice in a way you’d want a Ranger to act.”
New York is facing a seventh straight year without a postseason appearance, and unpopular general manager Glen Sather started a sudden rebuilding phase by making three major deals in under 24 hours.
Leetch’s equipment and nameplate were gone from the space next to Messier’s. His presence was felt, however, in Madison Square Garden—the arena Leetch called home for 17 seasons.
Those who attended Friday alternated between derisive chants for Sather and calls of “Go Leafs Go!” and “We Want Leetch Back!” Some marched through the aisles with paper bags covering their heads.
“We came in wanting to win the Stanley Cup,” Messier said. “To not even have a chance to play for the Stanley Cup is disappointing.”
LaBarbera and former Capitals star Jaromir Jagr set up Holik’s goal, scored with 9:16 left. Messier had a goal and an assist, and Chris Simon also scored for New York, which snapped a four-game winless streak.
“It was just fun to be out there and the whole atmosphere in the Garden,” LaBarbera said. “It was a pretty cool experience.”
Trent Whitfield and Kip Miller had goals for the Capitals, 1-5-1 in their last seven. Sebastien Charpentier stopped 19 shots in his third start in five games. Before that, Charpentier hadn’t played since Oct. 23 because of a hip injury.
Many fans chose to stay away from this game that pitted the Rangers against one of the few teams with a worse record than theirs.
“The fans have the right to do and say and express their opinion the way they want,” Holik said. “We’ve given them plenty of reasons to be the way they are. All we can do now is just make the rest of the year more pleasant for them.”
The Capitals have more than just a poor record in common with the Rangers. They, too, are involved in an overhaul of their roster that began in January when they dealt Jagr to New York.
“We’re still trying, even though we’re out of the playoffs,” Charpentier said. “Here are two teams cleaning up salaries, getting younger, out of the playoffs. You got a hell of a game.”
This week, Washington sent defenseman Sergei Gonchar and forward Michael Nylander to Boston. Robert Lang, near the top of the NHL scoring list, was dealt to Detroit last Friday—following the trade that sent Peter Bondra to Ottawa.
Just hours after Gonchar was traded, the Rangers dealt the popular Leetch to Toronto on Wednesday, making Sather even more of a villain.
“He’ll never be forgotten here,” said forward Matthew Barnaby, another candidate to be traded away. “It won’t be the last time his name is chanted here.”
New York is 12th in the 15-team Eastern Conference. Washington is mired in 14th, leading only Pittsburgh.
The Rangers took a 1-0 lead with 2:27 left in the first period on the 14th goal by former Capitals player Simon—another veteran on the block.
Washington tied it at 9:27 of the second while killing a penalty for too many men on the ice. Jeff Halpern came in on a two-on-one and found Whitfield in the crease for his first goal in 16 games, dating to the Capitals’ last meeting with the Rangers on Jan. 28. Halpern also set up Miller’s power-play goal 2:21 later.
Messier scored his 17th goal at 13:33 of the second.
Rangers C Eric Lindros, already sidelined by a concussion, has a muscle tear in his right shoulder. He was scheduled to see two doctors to determine a course of treatment. … Washington claimed forward Craig Johnson off waiversfrom Toronto. … Jagr has 1,300 NHL points.