Bernie Nicholls still hasn't been able to put the demons to rest. They kept him awake long into the night Sunday, fanning the flames of bitterness he still feels over his trade from the Kings to the New York Rangers nearly two months ago.
When he was swapped for Tomas Sandstrom and Tony Granato, Nicholls called it a dumb deal. He has certainly been vindicated by the results thus far. The Rangers have moved from fourth into first in the Patrick Division, while the Kings, with either Sandstrom or Granato injured much of the time, have gone nowhere.
But with the Kings coming to Madison Square Garden Monday, another chance for vindication was at hand and Nicholls tossed and turned until dawn at the prospect.
He might as well have stayed in bed. Vindication belonged to Sandstrom and Granato as they teamed to lead the Kings to a 6-2 victory before a disappointed sellout crowd of 16,651.
"I was thinking about this game all night," Nicholls said. "I thought I had talked myself out of being nervous, but, obviously, I hadn't.
"I felt good coming in, real calm. But once the game got going, I started to get real nervous and uptight. I didn't play well at all. I had no legs. I felt like I had already played a game. No way I should be that tired. It was just nervousness. I was mentally drained. I wanted to do well. Any time you play against your former teammates, you want to do well."
That's just the way Sandstrom and Granato felt.
They played on the same line Monday for the first time since they teamed last year with the Rangers.
But this time, the two wings had a bonus--Wayne Gretzky between them. The result was a goal and two assists for Granato, and a goal and an assist for Sandstrom.
"It was nice to come out of here with a win," Granato said, "but it's not like we came in here trying to prove they made a bad trade.
"It was a tough day, a lot of excitement. Basically, I was thinking, let's hurry and get the game over with. It was weird. There are a lot of good memories here."
Sometimes the memories intruded into reality. After being whistled for a penalty, Granato skated over to the Ranger penalty box before catching himself.
"I hoped that nobody saw," he said.
The goal was Granato's ninth of the season, but just his second as a King. He missed 13 of the 23 games the Kings have played since his arrival because of a groin injury.
A week after Granato returned, Sandstrom went out with a facial fracture and scratched cornea, the result of a punch thrown in the brawl with the Edmonton Oilers. Sandstrom missed five games before returning Monday and scoring his 28th goal, and ninth since the trade.
Sandstrom, the right side of his face still numb, wore a protective facemask Monday.
"I felt pretty safe behind it," he said, "but I feel kind of awkward with it."
The Rangers looked awkward all night, despite the fact they are 32-27-12, lead the second-place New Jersey Devils by eight points, had won five consecutive games at home and were 8-1-2 over their previous 11.
The Rangers are 15-6-2 since the Nicholls trade while the Kings are 9-13-1.
But, suddenly, with both Granato and Sandstrom back, the trade looks a little better.
After losing four in a row, the Kings (30-34-6) played well Monday for the second straight game, coming off an 8-2 win over the Pittsburgh Penguins Saturday.
The Kings scored on one of three power plays Monday, with John Tonelli getting his 29th goal, and killed seven of eight penalties.
Nicholls said he likes seeing his former teammates do well. At least when they are not across the ice.
And he holds no grudges against owner Bruce McNall, whom he met with after the game.
King Coach Tom Webster is another matter. Nicholls holds him responsible for the trade.
"A guy has to prove himself in this league," Nicholls said. "I could understand it if it had been Al Arbour or Scotty Bowman or someone like that who had been around a long time. But I don't think he (Webster) knew me well enough to make that decision."
Asked about Nicholls afterward, Webster replied, "Next question."
The other King goals were scored by Luc Robitaille (his team-leading 46th and fourth in two games), Steve Duchesne (20th) and Dave Taylor (13th). . . . The Ranger goals came from Kelly Kisio (19th) and newly acquired Mike Gartner (37th). . . . Bernie Nicholls had an assist to give him 100 points for the season, the second year in a row he's been in triple figures and third time overall.