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LAFONTAINE FITS IN AS RANGER, HAS GOAL TO PROVE IT

What will forever be known as the end of the Pat LaFontaine era in Buffalo came not when the trade of the popular Sabres captain was announced.

It came late in the third period of New York's opening game Friday against the hated New York Islanders.

That's when Pat LaFontaine, New York Ranger, won a faceoff in his own zone. He threw the puck back to the point and drove to the front of the Islanders' net. Planted there, LaFontaine awaited teammate Alexander Karpovtsev's hard drive from the right point. At the precise moment, a moment honed to athletic perfection via a lifetime in the game, LaFontaine dropped his stick, lifted his skate and perfectly redirected the puck past Islanders goaltender Tommy Salo for the first goal of the rest of his NHL career.

It brought the house down. It made Pat LaFontaine a Ranger.

There's no underestimating the magic LaFontaine brought to Madison Square Garden this night.

Not only did he win the faceoff and score the game-tying goal in a 2-2 game either team had a right to win, but with that one slick movement, that perfect blend of timing, positioning and hand-eye coordination, LaFontaine showed he was back and ready to play hockey.

Both the Rangers and their fans were grateful for it.

"I'm sure that was tough for him," said Wayne Gretzky, his new teammate and, based off what we saw last night, his newest admirer. "In professional sports there are always some special athletes and he has to be one of them. Everyone knows he could have stayed home and got paid the same money he's getting paid to play and not only getting pounded but risking injury. It takes a lot of courage and compassion to play and he still wants to be part of it. He's only going to get better as time goes by."

Say what you want about the merits of the trade -- or the selloff of one of the greatest assets in Buffalo Sabres history if you want to be perfectly blunt -- but in one swift moment when his new team needed him most, LaFontaine delivered.

It was a moment laced with magic and irony and no matter what happens next will forever put away the thought that LaFontaine no longer can play the game he loves.

He may still be at risk to the clutches of concussion-related injury somewhere through the 81 games that remain, but he can also still play the game and from the beginning of his war with the Sabres to Friday night, that's all he wanted to do. Play the game and play it well.

"There was a point in time when I didn't know if I would ever play this game again," LaFontaine said. "To be back there on the ice, I was enjoying that moment and just enjoying playing again . . . I was sore going in, we had had a couple of hard practices and I was worried about my legs, but that was a blessing I guess because I wasn't thinking about what might have been."

But for the more nervous in the crowd, that hardly mattered. The bigger questions -- could he still skate, play at a high level and, and this is most important, take a hit without crumbling like some piece of ragged paper-mache -- were all answered in this game. In taking a regular shift as the Rangers No. 2 center behind Gretzky and seeing regular time on the power play, LaFontaine looked almost like he had never been away. He darted in and out of traffic both in front of the net and along the boards. He skated with authority, maybe not with that first-step quickness that will come when he's back in game shape, but certainly with that strong, seemingly effortless stride that drives him to the net.

Most importantly, he showed no fear. He made his usual forays into the high traffic areas in front of the net, behind it and along the boards. He took hits, gave a few and was none the worse for the effort. He was also on the ice for the Rangers' first goal, in position to drive home the rebound had Adam Graves' drive not found the back of the net.

It was only a first step, but LaFontaine was pleased with the effort.

"As a player I have always put a lot of high expectations on myself but I was trying to focus on just doing my job and playing good defense," LaFontaine said. "That and trying to create some opportunities. I have a ways to go personally to get my legs, timing and skating back.

"It did feel nice though to get that goal and help the team."

That's a feeling LaFontaine hasn't had in awhile. In the past year his feelings have been mostly of pain, some physical, some emotional. In finally making his way back onto the ice again he said all the old symptoms, the headaches, the tension, depression and occasional bouts with despair were behind him.

"There were none whatsoever," he said when asked about the old symptoms that kept him out of the Sabres lineup even during the playoffs last spring. "I didn't have any problems like that and I thought about that. I was enjoying the atmosphere and kind of taking it all in as the game went along."

LaFontaine had no harsh words for his old team and the people who determined that he could no longer be a part of it. On this night his mind, along with his body, heart and soul belonged to the New York Rangers and LaFontaine was a happy man for it.

For better or worse, this is his team now. He is a Sabre no longer.

It's our loss and the New York Rangers' gain.

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