The Rangers had just scored a stunning 4-3 victory over the Islanders to take a three-games-to-two lead in their all-New York war to gain the Stanley Cup finals, and now, as midnight approached on Long Island last Saturday, Phil Esposito was pointing in the direction of Ranger Coach Fred (The Fog) Shero and saying, "I can understand how Philadelphia beat Boston that year."
"That year" was 1974, when Shero's Flyers defeated the Big Bad Bruins of Esposito and Orr to win the first of their two Stanley Cups. Esposito, who is 37 and well battered but still plays wonderful hockey, can better understand that upset these days, because Shero is now his coach and the spirited Rangers were treating the heavily favored Islanders, who had the NHL's best record this season, with much the same disdain that the Flyers showed the Bruins in 1974.
Executing a disciplined style of play rarely seen during the regular schedule—they finished a whopping 25 points, or 12½ games, behind the Islanders in the Patrick Division—the Rangers had their suburban rivals wondering what had hit them. Goaltenders Chico Resch and Billy Smith aside, the Islanders this season were essentially a team of four players—Defenseman Denis Potvin and the Trio Grande line of NHL scoring champion Bryan Trottier centering for 69-goal-scorer Mike Bossy and Left Wing Clark Gillies. Realizing this, Shero and Assistant Coach Mike Nykoluk (see box, page 33) shrewdly implemented tactics that made the Islanders' Big Four seem like no-shows most of the time.
Potvin did win Game 2 for the Islanders with a deflected goal in overtime, but in each game the Rangers harassed Potvin so mercilessly with aggressive fore-checking that he was unable to embark on any of his spectacular end-to-end rushes. Shero had the Rangers employ the same strategy against Potvin that the Flyers had used so successfully against Bobby Orr in 1974; that is, they threw the puck into Potvin's corner and made him handle it time after time. Then the Ranger forecheckers arrived and forced Potvin to pass to a teammate. However, instead of peeling off Potvin and following the puck, one forechecker always stayed with him.
"They are staring right into my eyes even after I give up the puck," said the perplexed Potvin.
"The whole idea is to get yourself in a position where Potvin cannot create a give-and-go situation, which he's famous for," said Ranger Steve Vickers.
As for the Trio Grande, Trottier, who had 47 goals and 87 assists during the regular season, scored the Islanders' only goal in their 4-1 loss in Game 1 but then was shut off by centers Walt Tkazcuk and Esposito, both of whom utilized a no-holds-barred technique. Bossy not only failed to score a goal or even an assist, but he also was able to get off a total of just six shots against Ranger Goaltender John Davidson. Forwards Pat Hickey and Vickers easily blunted Bossy's firepower by staying between Bossy and Davidson whenever the puck was in the Ranger zone, and also by body-checking Bossy at every opportunity. Gillies, a reputed muscleman in the corners, missed more Rangers than he hit. Total output for the Trio Grande: one goal and one assist in five games.
The Islanders' Big Four was at its worst on the power play. In 80 regular-season games, the Islanders led the NHL with 81 power-play goals, including a league-high 27 by Bossy. However, they were 0 for 19 on their power play against the Rangers, and on Saturday night looked so inept, so tentative, that when one Ranger was called for a penalty, Islander fans yelled, "Decline it."
Still, the Islanders were alive, if not well, as the clock wound down on Game 5. They had tied the series at two games apiece on Bob Nystrom's overtime goal Thursday night in Madison Square Garden, and they tied Saturday's game at 2-2 on Mike Kaszycki's goal at 4:20 of the third period—a goal that Davidson swears never entered the net. Breaking over the blue line, Kaszycki fired a slap shot that deflected off Defenseman Carol Vadnais' ankle and then floated goal-ward like a knuckleball. Davidson fell backward when the puck changed direction, then watched as the puck hit the post over his head and dropped onto his blocking glove.
"It didn't go in," Davidson says. "I'm positive. I watched it." Nonetheless, the goal judge—a neutral official from Buffalo—ruled that the puck broke the plane of the goal line while in the air.
At 9:04 the Rangers regained the lead 3-2 when Esposito passed into the slot to Defenseman Ron Greschner, who beat Smith with a low shot to the stick side. That edge held up for all of 29 seconds as Nystrom—doing his Bossy imitation—whipped a turnaround forehand through Davidson to make it 3-3. Suddenly play became wide open as both teams passed spectacularly and forced Davidson and Smith to make fine saves.
With slightly more than two minutes to play, Anders Hedberg, the Rangers' $600,000-a-year Swedish import, suddenly found himself with the puck during a scramble in front of the Islander goal. He hesitated until Smith was down, then flipped a backhand into the net for the winning score. "I looked up at the clock," Hedberg said, "and thought, 'I hope this is the winner. I do not want to play another overtime.' "
Small wonder. The Rangers had lost the second and fourth games to the Islanders in sudden death. In fact, they were 8-0 in regulation time during the playoffs but 0-3 in O.T.
All week long the cosmopolitan, sophisticated Big Apple—the city that had yawned through the NHL-Soviet Challenge Cup, the "Series of the Century"—was foaming at the very mention of hockey. Scalpers were getting $250 for a single $22 ticket for the Rangers-Islanders semifinal and talking of a $500 ticket for the Cup finals. A furor of sorts arose over the refusal of the teams to televise the games except to cable subscribers; and as many as 4,000 people paid their way into the Garden's adjoining Felt Forum to see the games on closed circuit.
Ranger fans could be forgiven their exuberance. Hard times, of course, are the norm, the team having been to the Stanley Cup finals only twice since 1940—the last year it won the Cup. And it was the Islanders themselves who precipitated the Rangers' most recent fall from grace, J.P. Parise ousting the Rangers from the 1975 playoffs with the quickest overtime goal in history—11 seconds—after intercepting a Vickers pass.
The truth of the matter was, no one could remember ever seeing so much interest in hockey in New York, and starry-eyed talk about a network television contract began to be heard. Said Islander General Manager Bill Torrey, "It reminds me of a Toronto-Montreal semifinal or final, where hockey's the only thing on people's minds."
What was on Torrey's mind most of the time, though, was his team's mental state. Each day the New York papers portrayed the Islanders as tight, nervous, dry of mouth, while the Rangers came off as blithe spirits who played golf when they weren't on the ice. "We're a happy bunch," Shero said dourly.
"Some of my guys are pressing," said Torrey of his Islanders. "They read in the papers how our team is tight, and they think 'I'm not tight. I'd better get tight.' So they do."
Said Islander Coach Al Arbour, "Our guys have had fun all year. A lot of this is being created by the media. The thing is, the players can't believe that junk. They've got to believe in themselves."
Still, every team has a distinctive character, and Arbour admits that the Islanders have been "force-fed on winning." Potvin describes the team as "serious." Resch, one of the few Islanders who likes to express his insights, said, "Naturally, by Newton's Law of Tightivity, we're going to be tighter than the Rangers. We're expected to win and they're not. But if it's handled right, being tight can be an advantage—the same as being loose can. The Canadiens are always tighter in outward appearance than the teams they play this time of year."
Before Game 3 on Tuesday night at the Garden, Resch was more concerned with the style of play the Islanders were using. "You have to change your style of play during the playoffs," Resch said. "It becomes more of a physical game, with less finesse. It's tighter checking. If we can't blow the Rangers out, and we haven't, we'll have to grind them out. We didn't think they were going to be as tough as they are in the corners."
Indeed, the Rangers, who over the years have been pushovers for the NHL's musclemen, not only were tough in the corners but they also initiated most of the collisions. "One thing we learned in our series against the Flyers," said Defenseman Dave Maloney, "was that if you're going to make a play, you've got to take your bump."
Esposito took about a dozen bumps, in fact, as he scored the winning goal in the Rangers' 3-1 victory in that third game. The Islanders had tied the score 1-1 on a goal by Bob Bourne, and they seemed to be taking command when the puck rolled harmlessly into the corner to the left of Goalie Resch. Potvin, thinking the whistle would blow because the puck was tied up in the skates of several players, relaxed momentarily, and suddenly the puck skittered loose.
Esposito immediately planted his immovable frame at Resch's doorstep. Two Islanders tried to blast Esposito away, but they couldn't budge him. Then Don Murdoch got the puck to Esposito, and the oldest Ranger poked it under Resch.
"I'll go on record right now as saying that the Rangers' crop of forwards is better at putting the puck in the net than Montreal's," said Resch. "The Rangers are a very explosive team."
What Resch left unsaid, though, was that the Islanders, unlike the Rangers, were permitting the opposition forwards to set up light housekeeping in front of the goal without any fear of physical reprisal. "Bossy gets creamed every time he gets near the net, but their guys don't even get touched," moaned one Islander. "It's really sickening to see."
The Islanders finally displayed some muscle in Game 4, but the Rangers didn't back down an inch. Don Maloney, Dave's 20-year-old brother, scored twice for the Rangers, but John Tonelli and Billy Harris countered for the Islanders, and the game went into overtime. In the fourth minute the Rangers were caught on a line change, and suddenly there were Nystrom and Davidson converging on the puck from opposite directions. Davidson dived for the puck about halfway between his goal and the blue line, reaching it just before Nystrom's stick. Nystrom and Davidson collided, and somehow Nystrom emerged upright 10 feet in front of the vacant goal. Meanwhile, the puck shot upward and fell flat at Nystrom's feet, and he slid it into the net.
"Waiting for it to come down was the longest moment of my life," said Nystrom. "I wanted to call fair catch." Refusing to second-guess himself for coming out of the net but not gaining control of the puck, Davidson said, "What bothered me was what the puck did, flying straight up like that. It didn't make any sense."
It made wonderful theater, though, as did the whole slam-bang series.