-- NEW YORK - New York Rangers captain Mark Messier refused to close the door on a 26th season in the NHL but said Wednesday night he is "leaning" toward retirement. Messier held a lengthy news conference following a 4-3 loss to the Buffalo Sabres that almost certainly was his last game of the season. Asked if it also was the last game of a Hall of Fame career, he replied, "I would probably say I'm leaning more toward not playing, if you had to pick one or the other." The 43-year-old Messier was cheered throughout the Rangers' latest loss in another disappointing season. He delighted the sellout crowd of 18,200 in the first period by scoring his 694th career goal, then acknowledged the fans with several post-game laps around the ice. "This hasn't snuck up on me, this night here," he said. "I've been thinking a lot about it the last three years." Messier's family was in attendance at Madison Square Garden and his teenage son spent the third period behind the Rangers' bench. But Messier cautioned reporters not to read anything into their presence. "If I did think in my mind this was it, there'd be a lot more plans and preparations a month ago," he said. "I just didn't know completely in my heart that was the case and I didn't want to put myself in a situation where I did that and come September, I'd want to play again." The Sabres remained on the ice after the game, saluting Messier from the blue line. Buffalo coach Lindy Ruff waited to congratulate him as he headed to the locker room. "If this is his last game at the Garden, maybe the last game of his career, it's been one helluva career," Ruff said. Messier played his 1,756th game, second in NHL history behind Gordie Howe. He ranks seventh on the all-time goals list, third with 1,193 assists and second behind long-time teammate Wayne Gretzky with 1,887 points. "I feel good about what I accomplished as a player, I feel good about what I stood for as a player," he said. "If it is time to retire, I can walk away feeling good about the 25 years I spent playing this game." Messier is a two-time Hart Trophy winner as the league's most valuable player, appeared in 15 All-Star Games and was a member of six Stanley Cup winners. He is the only player to captain two different teams to championships and is best known as one of the premier leaders in professional sports. Rangers' fans forever will remember Messier as "The Messiah" after he helped the team end its 54-year Stanley Cup drought in 1994. With New York facing elimination in the 1994 Eastern Conference finals against New Jersey, Messier guaranteed victory in Game Six, then recorded a hat trick to back it up. "I'll go to my grave with the feelings and emotions and the memories of 1994," he said.
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