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GRETZKY COMES TO LIFE AS KOVALEV SITS

On the night Alexei Kovalev's turbulent Rangers career probably came to an end, the team that carried on without him roared to life.

To declare that there was a cause-and-effect relationship between the two is a bit of a stretch. But to say they are totally unrelated would also be untrue.

Because with the rest of the Rangers -- particularly Wayne Gretzky -- simply pressing forward and getting the puck on net at just about every opportunity, they were able to bang out a no-fuss 4-1 victory over the lowly Tampa Bay Lightning on Tuesday night at the Garden.

Kovalev, who had gone the previous nine games with nary a goal and just three assists, was informed of his exclusion from the lineup by assistant coach Dick Todd at Tuesday's morning skate. While he did not immediately react, Kovalev later pitched a fit in the Rangers' locker room.

That very well could have been his final act as a Ranger, because he is expected to be dealt soon after the NHL's Christmas moratorium on trades ends at midnight Saturday night. Kovalev might even be gone already because Rangers president and general manager Neil Smith is believed to have a deal with Carolina for speedy sniper Geoff Sanderson simply awaiting his sign-off.

Asked after the game whether it would be wrong to presume that Kovalev had played his last game as a Ranger, Smith hesitated. Then he said: "Yeah, I think that would be wrong. I haven't got him in anything. There's nothing done."

However, Smith added: "I think Colie did something that had to be done to shake up the team. I applaud him for doing what he did. I think this sends a message to the team that if you're not there for us, we don't need you. And (Kovalev) hasn't been there. He certainly wasn't (Sunday) night (a 2-0 loss to the Sabres)."

For his part, though calmed down after the game, Kovalev was hardly either chastened or enlightened by his benching.

"I think I've played good," he said after being a healthy scratch for the first time since his rookie season of 1992-93. "If you don't score, it doesn't mean you aren't playing good. I think I've done everything right."

Asked if he believed coach Colin Campbell had given up on him, Kovalev replied: "That's a question for him." Asked if he had given up on Campbell, Kovalev said: "I'm not playing for him. I learned when I was growing up that I play for the team, for the Rangers and my teammates. I'm not playing for anybody. I'm playing for myself and my teammates."

Many of those teammates entered Tuesday night's game mired in slumps that, statistically at least, were as bad as Kovalev's. None was more glaring than Gretzky's.

Without a goal in nine games, he had gone 15 matches without a multiple-point game, the longest such stretch of his career. But last night, finally giving in to a three-year-old request by allowing his 7-year-old son Ty to stand on the bench during the game, Gretzky broke out with assists on three of the Rangers' goals.

Kurri notches 600th goal as Avalanche win

DENVER -- Although he no longer plays alongside Wayne Gretzky, Jari Kurri joined his former teammate in an exclusive club.

Kurri, who played with Gretzky in Edmonton and Los Angeles, scored his 600th career goal and the Colorado Avalanche scored four second-period goals in a 5-1 victory over the Kings.

Kurri became the eighth player in NHL history to score 600 goals and is now 13 assists shy of becoming the sixth with 600 goals and 800 assists. The only other active players with 600 goals are Gretzky and Mike Gartner, while Gretzky is the lone active 600-800 member.

"It is a relief to get it over with," Kurri said. "This puck should be under the (Christmas) tree. The other gifts can all go away. This was the best gift I could get."

Kurri got his 600th goal by converting a cross ice-pass from Alexei Gusarov at 3:21 of the first period.

"I have seen him score a lot of goals, and that was a vintage Jari Kurri goal," Colorado coach Marc Crawford said. "He has been consistent throughout his 17-year career. You've got to score a lot of goals to make 600."

Peter Forsberg, who has 27 points in his last 19 games, and Claude Lemieux each had a goal and an assist for the Avalanche. Patrick Roy stopped 19 shots to snap Los Angeles' three-game winning streak.

Brodeur expects to see more of Caps

WASHINGTON -- With the new year still a week away, Martin Brodeur was looking way ahead.

"This is the team we're going to play in the first couple of rounds of the playoffs," the New Jersey Devils goalie said after making 33 saves in a 1-1 tie with the Washington Capitals. "We need to be successful in our own conference."

New Jersey, 0-1-2 after winning six straight games, has been successful against its division. The Devils are an impressive 11-2-1 against Atlantic Division opponents, but the Capitals own a win and a tie over New Jersey.

"This is a real building block for us -- to know you came up against one of the top defensive teams in the league and easily could have won the game," said Washington goalie Bill Ranford, who made 23 saves.

Still, the Capitals continued to struggle on offense. Washington has scored seven goals in last five games and made the most of a one-goal effort.

Kelly Miller's short-handed goal with 12:17 left in regulation tied the game and ruined an impressive streak by the Devils. New Jersey came into the game 21-0 when leading after two periods.

Jagr alters stance on new deal

CANONSBURG, Pa. -- In an ironic twist to prolonged contract talks, Jaromir Jagr's fondness for Pittsburgh has emerged as a key factor in his reluctance to sign a long-term contract with the Penguins.

For weeks, he has been on the verge of signing a seven-year, $53 million deal that would be among the NHL's most lucrative.

Now, Jagr says he would sign a four-year contract for the same average salary. What's new is that Jagr fears a pricey, long-term contract could get him traded if the Penguins experience money trouble.

"Nobody knows what could happen to me," Jagr said. "Seven years is too long. If they offer that same average for four years, I would sign it right now. I like it here," he added. "I've played here eight years, and the fans were nice to me. Everybody was nice. Especially the organization."

Around the rinks

Jim Campbell had a goal and an assist as the Blues extended their unbeaten streak to four games by beating the Panthers, 3-2. . . . Defenseman Eric Desjardins had a goal and an assist as the Flyers extended their unbeaten streak to eight games with a 4-2 victory over the Hurricanes. Shjon Podein, Chris Gratton and Rod Brind'Amour also had goals for the Flyers. . . . Chris Phillips scored at 3:51 of overtime and Alexei Yashin had two goals as the Senators beat the Canadiens, 4-3. Montreal's Mark Recchi, playing in his 500th consecutive game, scored his 17th goal at 10:23 of the third period to tie it 3-3 and force overtime. . . . Mats Sundin and Wendel Clark each had a goal and an assist for the Maple Leafs in a 5-4 victory over Oilers. Edmonton's Bryan Marchment played after the NHL decided not to suspend him for a hit on Greg Adams of the Dallas Stars. Adams is expected to miss 4-6 weeks because of a sprained knee. . . . Ed Ward scored his first goal of the season with 1:16 remaining in regulation as the Flames tied the Coyotes, 2-2. . . . The Stars scored on all three of their power-play chances to extend their winning streak to four games with a 3-1 victory over the Canucks.

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