But last night, the Rangers met their match in the Washington Capitals, who played inspired hockey without their leading goal-scorer and two big defensemen and rallied to a 5-3 victory.
It was the first time the Rangers had lost after leading after two periods in 92 games. Since 1992, New York was 85-0-6.
The Caps were without right wing Peter Bondra, who will miss at least the next two games with a groin injury, and defensemen Mark Tinordi and Brendan Witt, who are recovering from a concussion and broken wrist, respectively.
Messier went to the bench with a bruised right shoulder just three seconds into his first second-period shift and did not return.
With goalie Olie Kolzig just back from a reconditioning stint with AHL Portland, where he was undefeated in five games, the Capitals rallied for three third-period goals to earn the victory.
"The competition makes you better," said Capitals coach Jim Schoenfeld. "Not many of the teams trying to catch us [in the standings] thought we'd come out of here with two points. And the ones ahead of us have to be looking over their shoulders."
The defeat was the second straight at home for the Rangers since the New York Islanders ended their club record-tying 24-game unbeaten streak last week.
For the Capitals, who had lost four of their previous five, the win came at the perfect time.
"We played desperation hockey," said Kolzig, who made 38 saves. "We'd lost three in a row. We're on a three-game road trip. The games are dwindling away. We had to play in-your-face hockey. And we play our best hockey in the third periods."
The Caps' Michal Pivonka and Joe Juneau each scored in the first 5:04 of the third and then Juneau ensured the victory at 12:03, when he stole the puck and started a give-and-go with Steve Konowalchuk that Juneau completed for a short-handed goal.
It was Juneau's first two-goal game since joining Washington late in the 1993-94 season.
Washington got first-period power-play goals from defenseman Calle Johansson and Pat Peake, to carry a 2-1 lead into the second period.
The win gives Washington (29-25-7) a little breathing room in sixth place in the Eastern Conference with 65 points. The New Jersey Devils and the Tampa Bay Lightning, who have 62 points each, were idle last night.
The Rangers had their problems last night. Right wing Alexei Kovalev was expelled 9:52 into the first for high-sticking Juneau and cutting the inside of his lip. Messier, who scored New York's first goal, suffered his shoulder bruise in the second period. And then seven minutes into the third, defenseman Kevin Lowe suffered a groin injury and left.
New York got back-to-back goals from Sergei Nemchinov -- the last with 21.4 seconds left in the second period -- to give the Rangers a 3-2 lead after two periods.
But that was all the Rangers would get.
"I wouldn't expect a letdown, but we sure didn't rally in a hurry," said Rangers coach Colin Campbell of how his team performed without Messier.
It was the absence of Bondra that forced Schoenfeld to shuffle his lines. The result was two combinations that worked: Juneau and Konowalchuk, and Pivonka and Peake.
Defensemen Joe Reekie and Johansson played a lot and appeared to lift their games mightily.
"We know we can't afford to lose any more games," said Reekie. "It's crunch time and we just went out and limited their chances and Olie came up with the big saves."