When the New York Rangers signed Wayne Gretzky as a free agent in the summer of 1996, the hope was that a reunion with his friend and team captain Mark Messier would reinvigorate ‘The Great One.’
After two non-playoff seasons with the Los Angeles Kings, and a mid-season trade to the St. Louis Blues in the 1995-96 season, Gretzky became one of the few athletes to take less money to play in New York. In the Big Apple, Gretzky didn’t have the pressure of being the team’s captain, or playing against the opposition’s top defensive pair on a nightly basis.
Gretzky was rejuvenated, and it showed in his play on the ice. The NHL’s all-time leading scorer led the Rangers with 97 points during the regular season, good enough for fourth in the NHL. In addition, his 72 assists tied Messier’s team record for most assists by a forward in a single season.
The Rangers finished the regular season in fifth place, and drew the Florida Panthers, the defending Eastern Conference champions, as their opening round opponent. The teams traded 3-0 shutouts in Florida before returning to New York for Games Three and Four. In Game Three, the Rangers tied the contest with 18.9 seconds remaining in regulation, and won in overtime on Esa Tikkanen’s goal.
However, there was a feeling that the momentum of the series was about to change in the Panthers’ favor.
There was no off day between Game Three and Game Four, and since the Rangers were an older team than Florida, the consensus was that the Panthers would head home with the series tied at two games apiece.
At the start of Game Four at Madison Square Garden, the Panthers did have more energy than the Blueshirts. On a first period powerplay, Florida’s Rob Niedermayer beat Mike Richter with a wrist shot from the right circle to put the Panthers ahead 1-0.
The Rangers were flat, and the home crowd sensed it as well. As the second period got underway, the Garden Faithful was waiting for the game to turn from bad to worse.
But ‘The Great One’ would have none of it.
The tide turned on an abbreviated Rangers powerplay early in the period. Panthers forward Jody Hull attempted to shoot the puck down the ice, but defenseman Brian Leetch kept the puck in the zone.
One of the best offensive defensemen in the league, Leetch skated down the middle of the ice towards goalie John Vanbiesbrouck. As Florida’s netminder came out to challenge Leetch, the 1997 Norris Trophy winner made a no-look pass to Gretzky, who was alone at the bottom of the right circle.
Gretzky took the pass and fired a one-timer into the net. The goal, at 3:07, evened the score and got the home crowd back into the game.
Just over three minutes later, Gretzky had another scoring opportunity. Rangers forward Niklas Sundstrom chipped the puck past Panthers defenseman Paul Laus to set up a 2-on-1 opportunity for the Blueshirts.
Luc Robitaille held the puck along the left wing boards, and skipped a cross-ice pass to Gretzky once the two entered the Panthers zone. Gretzky, who wasn’t know to have a tremendously hard shot, put his head down and fired a slap shot at Vanbiesbrouck from the bottom of the circle.
Beezer didn’t have enough time to react, as the puck went over his shoulder into the top corner of the net. When Gretzky returned to the bench after his second goal of the game, his longtime friend knew exactly what to tell him.
“Nobody can sniff it out better than he did,” Messier would say afterwards.
“He always tells me to keep sniffing,” Gretzky said of the Rangers captain. “He knew I had a little extra jump.”
Gretzky sniffed out his next scoring opportunity just before the midway point of the period. Sundstrom passed the puck to Gretzky, and the 36-year-old skated down the right wing boards with only defenseman Ed Jovanovksi in his path.
‘The Great One’ raised his stick as if he were to take a slapshot, but he decided to fake it, much to the dismay of the Garden crowd. The Panthers were able to get back into the zone, and Gretzky moved back towards the blueline. As MSG play-by-play broadcaster Sam Rosen said during the broadcast, “He decides to make a play,” referring to the other Blueshirts who were entering the zone.
‘The Great One’ had another idea.
Once he reached the top of the circle, Gretzky cut towards the slot and took a slapshot. Unlike his first two goals, which were scored high on the glove side, Gretzky’s rocket was directed low to the stick side.
The puck rang off the inside of the far post and went by Vanbiesbrouck. Gretzky emphatically celebrated the tally, first pointing to his wife in the stands, and then skating to the bench for a hug with Messier.
It was a natural hat trick. Three goals (on three shots) in a span of six minutes and 23 seconds had given the Rangers the offense they needed to secure a win in Game Four, and sparked a run that would propel the Blueshirts to the Eastern Conference Finals.
Gretzky would play two more seasons with the Rangers, but the 1996-97 season was the last time that Gretzky appeared in the playoffs. His final NHL seasons didn’t statistically match the record-shattering years he had in Edmonton, or a Stanley Cup Finals appearance like he had in 1993 with the Kings.
But on April 23, 1997, Wayne Gretzky gave Rangers fans a moment that showed how dominant of a hockey player he truly was.
To see Gretzky’s natural hat trick, watch the video below from 6:24 to 9:16