John Davidson didn't want to discuss it. Things were going too good. The soft-spoken New York Ranger goaltender knew that bubbles are made to be burst—five years with the hapless St. Louis Blues and the pre-Shero Rangers will do that to a man—and his particular bubble was floating pretty high. Davidson had shut out Philadelphia 6-0 Sunday night to enable the Rangers to take a 3-1 lead in their best-of-seven quarterfinal playoff series. It was the third straight win for the young, engaging Rangers, and none of them was a nail-biter. They waltzed 7-1, 5-1, 6-0 to take the Flyers to the brink of elimination. That just doesn't happen to the Broad Street Bullies, and Davidson wasn't about to jinx himself by analyzing the Rangers and his own superb and surprising play. "I don't like to talk about it really," he said. "I don't even like to think about it. We're all just gaining confidence in ourselves and learning how to win. I'm trying to relax and enjoy it."
Before the Rangers' lopsided victories, the players on both teams were predicting a seven-game pitched battle to be decided by a lucky bounce in any of a number of overtimes. The teams were so evenly matched that the so-called home-ice advantage meant little. The Rangers had won two and lost two at Philadelphia during the regular season, while the Flyers had a 1-0-3 record in Madison Square Garden. Indeed, until last Friday's 5-1 win, the Rangers had not beaten the Flyers in the Garden for more than three years, losing to them twice and tying no less than eight games. The entire history of the rivalry could hardly have been closer, with the Rangers holding a 25-23-22 edge.
There also was a degree of closeness between the rival coaches. The Rangers' Fred Shero coached the Flyers for the past seven years. Pat Quinn, who was appointed coach of the Flyers Jan. 30 and guided them from fourth place to second in the Patrick Division, was Shero's assistant last season. Or, more aptly, Shero was Quinn's tutor. Thus, there would be no great surprises in strategy.
But for all their familiarity, the two teams were as different as, well, the tortoise and the hare. The tough, thick-shelled, tireless Flyers are perhaps the slowest team in hockey. "I-think-I-can, I-think-I-can," they puff with every stride. The Rangers can skate with any team in North America, as evidenced by their 3-1 record against Montreal's flying Frenchmen this year. But they are young and, at times, harebrained. In their season series against the Flyers they had a habit of racing away to huge leads only to be caught up with in the end. Twice in the Garden, the Flyers came from three goals down to tie, once from a 4-0 deficit.
April 29, 1979
It happened again in the opener of the quarterfinals at the Spectrum. The Flyers, who had a tough three-game series against Vancouver, fell behind 2-0 before Bill Barber tied the game at 2-2 with 4:58 remaining in regulation. With less than a minute gone in the overtime, Ken Linseman intercepted the Rangers' Carol Vadnais' one-handed shovel pass, wheeled in and fired low through a screen to win the game and give Philly a 1-0 lead in the series. There was a delicious bit of irony in the fact that Linseman, the one Flyer who lives up to the team name, scored the goal. He was the player Philadelphia selected from last year's draft as compensation for Shero's leaping to the Rangers.
But what most concerned New York fans, and the players, was that they had blown another lead to the tortoise. "We went into a shell in the third period," said Ranger captain Dave Maloney—odd behavior for a hare. "We panicked."
Shero said, "Sitting back is fine if you have a very experienced club. But we've got to have our share of the puck to win."
In the second game, the Rangers had their share and the Flyers' share, and it was the old tortoise who went into his shell this time, never to emerge. With the score tied at 1-1 and the Flyers on the power play, Ranger Defenseman Ron Greschner set the tone for the rest of the game by checking Bobby Clarke off the puck, then easily outdistancing Clarke and the lead-footed Bob Dailey in their race for the Flyer goal. He deked Robbie Moore, the diminutive (5'5") Flyer goaltender, and slid in a forehand for the first of his two goals.
The Rangers took 21 shots in the second period, adding three more goals and, determined to prove that they had learned their lesson about running a race from wire to wire, scored twice more in the third. The 7-1 final score was the worst thrashing the Flyers had ever suffered in the playoff's—103 games—and the worst playoff loss in front of their home fans since Chicago drubbed them 12-0 a decade ago. More important, it destroyed the confidence the Flyers had in their ability to come from behind, and gave the home-ice advantage, for whatever it was worth, to the Rangers. "You're always happy with a split, but if we'd played a little smarter we might have had two," Shero said.
For his part, Quinn pointed a thick finger at the referees. Seventeen seconds into Wednesday's humiliation, Bruce Hood had whistled Linseman off for tripping, the fourth time in the Flyers' five postseason games that they had been penalized in the opening minute. "Apparently they don't want contact, and the Philadelphia Flyers can't play without contact." Quinn said. "If people want ballet, let them go to the Ice Follies."
Folly is the word for it, but such an attitude is not exactly shocking from a man who, in nine seasons of NHL play averaged two goals and 106 penalty minutes a season. And Quinn was right. For whatever reasons, the Flyers were just standing around at both ends of the ice. "Static" was Quinn's word. To get a little electricity back in the ranks, he decided to dress Dave (three goals in 67 games) Hoyda for the third game in New York.
Throwing their weight around as they had not done in Philly, the Flyers took a 1-0 lead in the first period on a goal by Mel Bridgman that was set up by Hound Dog Bob Kelly. A total of 52 minutes in penalties was called, and the period was truly played at a turtle's pace.
Enter the hare in the form of 20-year-old Don Maloney, the captain's brother. He scored twice in 26 seconds early in the second session—a period in which the Rangers shot 60% from the floor, as it were, Goaltender Wayne Stephenson making two saves in five chances. Asked about the poise of Maloney, who played only 28 games during the season but is the Rangers' leading scorer in the playoffs, Shero said, "It has nothing to do with poise. It's courage."
The Rangers won the game 5-1 behind the exceptional goaltending of the 6'3", 205-pound Davidson—who leads all goalies in the playoffs with a 1.14 goals-against average—and took a 2-1 lead into Sunday's game. A shorthanded goal by Anders Hedberg was the second of three the Rangers scored against the Flyers in the first four games of the series, surpassing the total allowed by Philadelphia in the entire regular season.
There was also some nice irony in Hedberg's goal. A disciple of the European style of play so foreign to the pugnacious Flyers, Hedberg had been speared in the first period by Stephenson, and responded by getting into his second fight of the series with Stephenson—a questionable move against a masked goaltender. Hedberg was later high-sticked by Paul Holmgren to the tune of five stitches. Hedberg responded with a great game—he was clearly the best man on the ice. Afterward, ice bag on his forehead, he mused about his opponents. "They're not going to die. I wish they would, but they won't. I want to beat these guys really bad. They don't represent the way I think the game should be played. That's not tough hockey they play."
Is it dirty? he was asked. Is it chippy? Hedberg rolled his eyes in the direction of his gash. On his chest was a gouge from a spear. "I'm not saying. Don't put anything in my mouth. Please."
Which was precisely Davidson's attitude. After Sunday's rout there was one game still to be won. And if there was one lesson this hare had learned, it was to race a tortoise all the way down to the wire.