There was certainly reason for Brian Leetch to be smiling Monday night. No, it wasn’t a birthday smile, although the All-Star defenseman was celebrating his 35th that day. In completing a beautiful end-to-end rush with a backhanded goal over Islanders netminder Garth Snow to tie the game at 1-1 and earn a hard-fought point, Leetch and his teammates had moved a few steps closer to the Boston Bruins for eighth place in the Eastern Conference playoff battle. That was reason enough.
Although Leetch’s bruised left ankle is far from 100 percent, he has returned to the Blueshirt lineup and has been perhaps the best player on the ice, recording eight points and three ‘First Star of the Game’ selections in 10 games since coming back on February 14. More than his four goals and four assists since his return, Leetch continues to add another settling dimension to the team every time he steps foot on the ice, showing why he is among the NHL’s great defensemen of all-time. Despite a mild-mannered demeanor that he continues to carry in his 16th NHL season, he remains one of the fiercest competitors in the game today.
“He was a big piece that we were missing this year, there’s no doubt about it,” said captain Mark Messier. “I said when he came back that he’s the most important player on our team and he’s proven it again. When you got a guy that can control the game from the back line like that, it makes a huge difference on any team. He’s an unbelievable competitor. He’s playing about fifty percent on his ankle right now and is still playing the way he is.”
Since taking over behind the Rangers bench over a month ago, Glen Sather has enjoyed getting a first-hand look at Leetch since his return. To say he is impressed with his top defenseman would be an understatement.
“He’s playing great,” said Sather after Monday’s 1-1 tie. “He’s played as well as I’ve ever seen anyone play in the last couple of weeks. It’s outstanding.”
Leetch, whose modesty has always preceded him since joining the Rangers for the final 17 games of the 1987-88 season, downplayed his role in the teams’ recent 5-3-2 stretch in the last 10 games.
“I think mentally, being injured and coming back you are automatically fresh and excited to get back in the lineup,” he said. “To make the move for Alex and then to have Pavel come back right afterwards, some excitement already built up through the rest of the guys in the room. I came back in a good situation.”
With the addition of those players over the past three weeks and with the team playing its best hockey of the season, it’s tough to argue his point. But not nearly as tough as it is to argue Leetch’s place on the blueline in the history of the game.
Leetch, who owns numerous team records, is quickly approaching Blueshirt great and Hall of Famer Rod Gilbert for second place on the Rangers all-time games played list.
RANGERS ALL-TIME GAMES PLAYED LIST 1. Harry Howell - 1,160 2. Rod Gilbert - 1,065 3. Brian Leetch - 1,059 4. Ron Greschner - 982 5. Walt Tkaczuk - 945
Leetch is also one game-winning goal shy of tying Adam Graves for sixth place on the club's all-time list.
RANGERS CAREER GAME-WINNING GOALS 1. Rod Gilbert - 52 2. Jean Ratelle - 46 3. Vic Hadfield - 41 4. Mark Messier - 38 5. Bill Cook - 37 6. Adam Graves - 36 7. Brian Leetch - 35 Bun Cook - 35 Steve Vickers - 35