THE NHL / HELENE ELLIOTT : Messier's Influence Felt by Rangers

Mark Messier guaranteed the Rangers would win the sixth game of their semifinal series against the New Jersey Devils, and they did.

In a memorable performance, Messier seized control of the game and scored three times in the third period to rally the Rangers to a series-tying 4-2 victory. He didn't guarantee anything before the deciding seventh game, but his locker-room speech before overtime helped the Rangers overcome the disappointment of being tied with 7.7 seconds to play.

"He's the most dominant power center the league has ever seen," said Canuck center Trevor Linden, who likely often will be matched against Messier during the Stanley Cup finals, which open tonight at Madison Square Garden.

"He's the type of forward who plays his best when the most is on the line. I've played quite a bit against him. He's so strong and powerful. He's not a guy you stop, he's a guy you just try to control."

Messier, 33, became a man of few words as he prepared for his seventh Stanley Cup finals. With Edmonton, he won five rings and lost once, in 1984.

"There isn't much to say, besides, 'Let's go,' " Messier said. "I think everybody realizes what's at stake. We're not satisfied just being here.

"The attention that's going to be on the teams from here on out is going to be a lot greater than in the past, and we have to remember that being here is not what we set out to do. That's not our goal. Our goal is to win."

Messier, teammate Brian Leetch and Vancouver right wing Pavel Bure share second place in playoff scoring with 23 points each. Messier's 252 career playoff points rank second only to Wayne Gretzky, who has 346. With 193 games' playoff experience, Messier is third on the NHL games-played list, behind Larry Robinson (227) and Bryan Trottier (221).

IN THE FINALS, BY GEORGE

George McPhee, Vancouver's assistant general manager, admits he didn't expect the Canucks to get past the Flames in the first round.

"Psychologically, we didn't think we could beat them, and to come back like we did (from a 3-1 series deficit) was a turning point for the franchise," McPhee said. "It was unbelievable. We're 11-2 since then."

DEJA VU ALL OVER AGAIN

Ranger associate coach Colin Campbell, who played for the Canucks in their last trip to the finals in 1982, sees some parallels between then and now.

"We struggled all year long and then played well at the end. We just happened to click at the right time, and that's kind of what's happened to them," he said. "We weren't supposed to go far, but when L.A. beat Edmonton (in "the Miracle on Manchester") that opened things up for us. We didn't have a finesse team by any means."

Campbell is hoping he fares better as a coach than he did as a player, when his Canucks lost four straight to the Islanders. "I thought we played well against them, but 4-0 doesn't look good," he said.

RUSSIAN CONNECTION

Ranger defensemen Sergei Zubov and Alexei Kovalev, who grew up in Moscow with Bure, aren't surprised at his consecutive 60-goal seasons in the NHL. "I know how to stop him, but it is not legal," Zubov said.

Bure reportedly has agreed to a new contract that, including retroactive salary for this season, will pay him $25 million for five years.

NO MAN IS AN ISLANDER

Sometime this week, Al Arbour will leave the Islanders' bench for the second time, probably for a job with a long title and short list of duties.

Arbour spent 18 seasons behind the Islanders' bench, starting in 1973 and including their four consecutive Cups from 1980-83. He left in 1986 but returned in 1989, when Terry Simpson flopped.

At 61, Arbour was the NHL's oldest coach, but he might have been its youngest at heart. He prodded the Islanders into the playoffs but was so disappointed at being swept by the Rangers that he skipped the annual breakup meeting. Arbour tired of scolding Pierre Turgeon, who didn't play as big as his salary, and was frustrated by his defensemen's repeated mistakes.

Assistant Lorne Henning is the logical successor, but he's not a lock. GM Don Maloney, hoping to draw attention away from the Rangers, wants a coach who has more charisma than the soft-spoken Henning. Nice idea, but the Rangers will always dominate New York.

BONNE CHANCE, PIERRE

Pierre Lacroix, named the Nordiques' general manager last week, joins NHL Senior Vice President Brian Burke and Toronto assistant GM Bill Watters as agents who have switched sides of the bargaining table. He's in a situation that will test his negotiating skills.

The Nordiques, who missed the playoffs for the sixth time in seven seasons, are campaigning for a new arena but don't want to pay for it. In one of the NHL's smallest markets, they don't have the same revenue to spend on salaries as teams in large cities.

SLAP SHOTS

Former King Jimmy Carson played in Vancouver's first two playoff games--both losses--and hasn't played since. He went through the same thing last spring, seeing little action late in the Kings' run to the finals. "There's not much you can do except stay ready," he said. "I've learned a lot from this and hopefully it will help me in the future.". . . . Rogie Vachon's return to grace is a pleasant offshoot of the Kings' front-office shuffle. His connections and knowledge of the game will be valuable to NHL rookie GM Sam McMaster. . . . Tampa Bay GM Phil Esposito was interested in the Kings' GM job and is nosing around for openings with the Islanders. He has an offer from ESPN but wants more money. . . . Washington GM David Poile has agreed in principle to a new contract. He was rumored to be replacing Mike Milbury in Boston. Devil Coach Jacques Lemaire wants to re-sign free-agent defenseman Scott Stevens but is less sure about center Bernie Nicholls. New Jersey has the right to match offers made to Stevens.

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