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Rangers 3, Panthers 2 // No rats, no glory

This year, there was no magic.

There weren't any miracle saves or unlikely stars. Or overtime heroics or incredible upsets.

Or rats.

Maybe that's it. Maybe that's what went wrong. There were no rats.

And there won't be another unlikely run to the Stanley Cup final.

Five games. That's all it took to end the Florida Panthers' 1997 post-season. Five games. One series. Adios.

And it all came to a close Friday night when the New York Rangers defeated the Panthers 3-2 to win the best-of-seven series four games to one.

It didn't matter that the end came in overtime.

The Panthers could not care less that Mark Messier, perhaps the best big-game player his sport has ever seen, scored two goals. Or that Esa Tikkanen, a veteran of these Stanley Cup wars, scored his second overtime goal of this series.

The bottom line was this: three rounds remain in these Stanley Cup playoffs and the Panthers won't be around for any of them.

"How disappointing is it to go out in the first round?" Florida coach Doug MacLean said. "Do I really have to answer that? It's tough to go out in the first round. Very tough. Very disappointing."

But very real because the two greatest players in Stanley Cup history added to their rich resume of playoff accomplishments.

There were whispers during the season that the era of Wayne Gretzky and Mark Messier was quickly drawing to a close. They were growing too old and too slow to pull another Cup out of their locker of tricks.

The two shared a cab to Friday's game with Tikkanen. Talk about a luxury automobile. Had they been wearing them, 13 Stanley Cup rings would've been flashing in the back seat.

Gretzky, owner of a Game 4 hat trick and the top scorer in the series, tried to start a conversation with Tikkanen, who notched the overtime game-winner in Game 3. Both tried to lure Messier into the pregame chat.

"He wasn't really into participating," Gretzky said. "He already had his game face on. I had a feeling then he was going to have a big night."

Boy, did he ever. Held without a goal through the first four games, Messier scored 39 seconds into Friday's game. He then gave New York a 2-1 lead with 15 seconds left in the second period.

Florida tried to revive the magic of last year, tying the score at 2 with 7:23 remaining in the third on Ray Sheppard's goal. But it only set up a final curtain call for Messier and Tikkanen, and another exclamation point to Messier's playoff status.

"That's what it's all about," Messier said. "I don't care how long you've played or what you've done, you have to prove it every time out. I like that challenge."

Messier crossed the blue line late in the overtime and made a perfect feed to Tikkanen, who put a wrist shot behind John Vanbiesbrouck for the series winner.

"There were comments made throughout this series, there were posters that alluded to who was the underdog," Rangers coach Colin Campbell said about the premature rumors of the demise of Gretzky and Messier. "It got those guys going and proved how competitive they are. They have proved it and proved it and proved it and they continue to prove it."

This time, it was at the expense of the Panthers, who scored only four even-strength goals in the series and 10 overall. Gretzky, Messier and Tikkanen scored eight.

"I thought it was an even series except for Game 2," MacLean said, referring to the Panthers' 3-0 loss. "We played well. I don't think the Rangers played that much better. But their big players came up big. Mark Messier, Wayne Gretzky, Tikkanen all played great. That shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone that's in the hockey business."