By RICK CARPINIELLO
Original Publication: February 20, 2001
NEW YORK — Now Cablevision and Madison Square Garden will find out what they got when they hired Glen Sather to run the Rangers last summer. Because yesterday, in the first period of a 4-2 victory over the Chicago Blackhawks, a victory that ran the Rangers' unbeaten streak to five games and pulled them to within six points of a playoff spot, their season might have died. Unless Sather can save it, that is.
Rangers goalie Mike Richter suffered a complete tear of the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee just over a year after tearing the other ACL on an eerily similar play. Richter kicked out his right leg on a wide shot by Chicago's Steve Sullivan, and when his skate slammed into the goal post, the knee buckled. He was immediately taken for an MRI, which showed a complete tear. Team doctors, Bart Nisonson and Tony Maddalo will perform major reconstructive surgery when the swelling subsides, probably in the next two or three weeks.
On Feb. 5, 2000, at the All-Star Game skills competition, Richter's left knee was wrecked when he shoved it into the goalpost trying to stop Mariusz Czerkawski of the Islanders. Yesterday Richter left the ice crying, especially after he tried to put weight on the right knee and it gave way. He cried because he knew what it took to come back from the last reconstructive surgery — a six-month rehabilitation and three more months of constant therapy while he played. Knowing that it took so long also makes it important that Sather finds a goalie who can carry the load at the start of next season as well. Rookie Vitali Yeremeyev, who has struggled in the second half of the season in Hartford (AHL), was called up yesterday.
Sather immediately phoned Cliff Fletcher, who was named Wayne Gretzky's new GM in Phoenix, to talk about restricted free-agent goalie Nikolai Khabibulin, whose agent, Jay Grossman, has spoken to Sather in recent months. Grossman indicated yesterday that he expects Khabibulin to either sign with Phoenix or be traded relatively quickly now that Gretzky is in power. "You're not going to pick up the phone and make a deal the first conversation you have,'' Sather said. "It takes time. It's been going on for about four or five months.'' Khabibulin hasn't played NHL hockey in almost two seasons, spending last year in the International League with Long Beach while at a contract impasse with the Coyotes. He has been practicing all season this year, and could be ready in a few weeks if signed. Plus, he's only 28. "He's a good goaltender,'' Sather said. "That doesn't mean you're going to make a deal for him.''
The ramifications are complicated too, because it was widely believed that the Rangers would trade Richter for prospects, with St. Louis the likely contender interested in a Cup-proven goalie and the Blues having heavily scouted the Rangers the last few weeks. Sather also insisted that not only did he have a deal of Richter to St. Louis in the works, but also that "Richter hasn't been offered to anyone as far as I know'' and that, believe it or not, nobody had called about Richter's availability. Sather added that there may be other options — and that one of those is not Tom Barrasso, whom Sather contacted earlier this season. But Sather now has to do something quickly, or hope and pray that Kirk McLean, a forgotten man as Richter's backup for two seasons, can carry the Rangers into the playoffs starting Friday in Pittsburgh. Richter had just gotten back near the top of his game to keep them alive during their 4-0-1 streak. "It hasn't sunk in yet, and it probably won't for a few days,'' Richter said upon returning to the Garden on crutches. "I guess you can feel a little sorry for yourself, but this is part of sports. You are going to have setbacks, injuries, things you have to overcome. No athlete is immune to it.'' Richter said it's both frustrating and encouraging that he has experienced the lengthy rehab before — because he knows how difficult it is, and also that he can come all the way back from it. Last season, he played until the end of March despite the injury, and didn't have the surgery until April 5. "I would rather not have the experience, but I certainly know I can get through it and feel great and I've got a lot of years left,'' he said. "The sooner I get operated on, the sooner I can get therapy going.'' The Rangers, to a man, admitted there was an emotional sag after Richter went down with 1:37 left in the first period of a 1-1 game. But McLean stepped in, made two difficult saves right off the bat, and helped them get re-focused on the game. "I don't think there's another guy in the league that would have put in the time to keep his knee ready to play on a daily basis like he did,'' Mark Messier said. "It's basically a 24-hour job keeping the swelling out of it. There's not a lot of guys that would have put that effort into it. ... That's what makes him a champion. "He was playing with a lot of heart and experience and grit, but nobody could tell me he was 100 percent coming back off a knee injury like that. He was getting the job done with a lot of heart and a lot of courage, and that's why he's Mike Richter. He was just in tears. He knew what was wrong and he completely broke down. I think everybody was a little bit shaken up.'' Sather said his heart dropped, too. "It did for a few minutes,'' Sather said. "But the reality of it is, problems like this become challenges, so you have to find a way to solve them. There's no sense feeling sorry for yourself or feeling sorry for the team. We've got to find a way to work around it, and if we can't do that, we're not doing a very good job. You can't just throw your hands up and say, 'It's over with; we're out of this thing now because we've lost our goaltender.' We've got to find a way to fix the problem.''