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BRUINS, OILERS START OFF STANLEY CUP FINALS WITH MUTUAL RESPECT

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Ray Bourque and Mark Messier are competing for more than just the Stanley Cup and the NHL's most valuable player award.

The captains of the Boston Bruins and Edmonton Oilers are neck-and-neck in the battle for leadership of the mutual admiration society."I told him this after a few beers" while they were Canada Cup teammates, Bourque said. "If I'd been a general manager and had a new franchise, over anybody he'd probably be the guy I'd pick to start a new franchise."

Messier said of Bourque: "I know his talents and the team player and team leader that Ray is. I know the Boston Bruins rotate around Ray. He's just a great player."

All that buttering up isn't just an attempt to soften up an opponent who can single-handedly dash the other's greatest hopes - to win a Stanley Cup.

Their opinions are backed up by players on both sides in the best-of-7 Stanley Cup final beginning Tuesday in Boston, where the Bruins have won their last eight games. Game 2 is scheduled Friday night.

Bourque and Messier, both 11-year veterans, and St. Louis' Brett Hull are the three candidates for the Hart Trophy that goes to the most valuable player chosen in a poll of members of the Professional Hockey Writers' Association.

Messier was second in scoring in the NHL during the regular season with 84 assists and 129 points, while Bourque had 19 goals and 65 assists and was probably the league's top defenseman. They continued to play well in the playoffs, in which Messier has a league-high 26 points and Bourque has played excellent defense and offense.

When Wayne Gretzky was traded to Los Angeles before last season, Messier emerged from his shadow. But his teammates always viewed him as a leader and one of their most valuable players.

Edmonton's Craig Simpson is tied for third this season with Boston's Cam Neely with 12 playoff goals.

The Oilers lead the playoffs with 73 goals, but will face the postseason's top goalie. Moog has allowed seven goals in the last five games, winning all of them. His 1.92 goals against average is the best in the playoffs.