In the end, which came last Friday night when the New York Rangers eliminated the St. Louis Blues in Game 6 of their Stanley Cup quarterfinal series, it may have been Barry (Bubba) Beck who gained the most. Certainly more than the Rangers as a team, whose surprising performance through two rounds of the playoffs only deepens the shame of their 30-36-14 regular-season record and 13th-place finish. "They cheated the fans," says their coach, Craig Patrick. Their reward for beating the Blues? Probably a good thrashing in the semi-finals from the New York Islanders.
The Sasson jeans people have been running TV commercials featuring Phil Esposito, Ron Greschner, Anders Hedberg and Don Maloney dancing, singing ("Oo-la-la, Sasson," etc.) off-key and grinning like monkeys. While the Rangers were losing 18 of their first 24 games, some of their fans angrily sang back, "Oo-la-la, baboons!"
The Blues, on the other hand, made the mistake of taking the regular season seriously—they finished second in the league—instead of giving their fans a five-month song-and-dance like the Rangers. They allowed 29 goals in the New York series, which make's for a long summer to wonder whether 72 games weren't a bit much even for a goalie like Mike Liut.
Beck's reward for his playoff performance has been peace of mind. He didn't silence his critics, who had called him overrated, so much as the nagging voice at the back of his mind that had him wondering if he would ever again play as well as he had as a rookie in 1977-78, when he had 60 points for Colorado. After Beck fell off to 42 points the next year, the Rockies traded him to the Rangers. He was good for 65 points in 1979-80, but this season he had only 34, and New York had to scramble in its last 10 games just to make the playoffs. The big (6'3", 215 pounds), dominant defenseman who was supposed to lead the Darlings of Broadway to the Stanley Cup was a bust. And they had traded four players to get him.
May 3, 1981
But something happened those last 10 games. "It wasn't that he didn't fit in before," says one Ranger. "He just didn't feel comfortable until then. When they trade half a team for you, even if the guys accept you right away, it takes time to fit in—at least in your own mind."
Especially if your mind isn't fully focused on hockey. "Manhattan isn't the easiest place to play," says Beck. "There are a lot of...distractions." He chooses not to be specific, which is for the best, because the Rangers are an easily distractible lot. Among the hockey-related excuses they offer for their dismal regular-season record are: 1) Center Walt Tkaczuk's eye injury in February that has kept him out of the lineup ever since; 2) penalties (New York was second in the league in penalty minutes); 3) the disruptive effect of the firing of Coach Fred Shero in November; 4) the disruptive effect of Phil Esposito's retirement in January; 5) and the disruptive effect of playing before hostile fans in Madison Square Garden. Then there was Forum magazine cover boy Ron Duguay's talk of playing out his option, plus the uncertainty over whether Herb Brooks, the U.S. Olympic coach, would take over the team in March from Patrick, his Lake Placid assistant.
Not one of the Rangers would suggest that, during the season, the club put a higher priority on looking good off the ice than it did on looking good on it, though the general attitude of the team is best summed up by the player who said, "Under the system, you get away with what you can, right? But not in the playoffs." Only New York very nearly misjudged what it could get away with.
After 70 games the Rangers were 24-34-12, and with seven of their last 10 games against teams ahead of them in the standings, it looked as if they might miss the playoffs. "I didn't do a thing," says Patrick with a straight face. "The players got together and decided it was time to play playoff hockey."
Playoff hockey, for the uninitiated, means that everybody tries. You block shots, finish checks and hustle. It's a nice change. During those last 10 games New York showed there was, indeed, substance behind the style. The Rangers shut out Philadelphia twice, ended Montreal's 24-game unbeaten streak at home, beat Boston and Chicago and lost an away game to the Islanders by only 2-1. In all they were 6-2-2 with a 2.4 goals-against average. New York qualified for the playoffs by three points.
"Beck emerged as the leader in that stretch," says injured Ranger Goaltender John Davidson. When Esposito retired and Tkaczuk was injured, there was a void at the top, and the players looked to Beck. The Ranger management made him captain, and the extra responsibility had a marked effect on his play. His selection also affected the rest of the team. "He doesn't have to say very much, but you listen because he's so damn big," says one teammate.
"The main thing is, people believe in me now," says Beck. "That means a lot to me. When I first came here I was supposed to be [Denis] Potvin, [Larry] Robinson and [Bobby] Orr all rolled into one, but I still had a lot to learn. Now I'm playing with confidence, and there's no doubt in my mind I'm at the top of my game."
The top of his game, it turns out, is pretty far up there. Against St. Louis, which missed finishing first in the regular-season standings by three points, he knocked people down, scored, blocked shots and generally controlled the games in the way that separates the great from the merely good. "Beck gave them a lot of poise and authority," said losing Coach Red Berenson. "You can't put a man on a defenseman the way you can a forward. The whole Ranger team was playing with more direction and enthusiasm than it did in the season."
The Blues, who won all four of their regular-season games against New York, took the series opener 6-3 largely because Beck had his first bad game of the playoffs. The next night St. Louis lost the home-ice advantage it had worked for all season when the Rangers scored four third-period goals—one on a penalty shot by Hedberg—to win 6-4. The Rangers now needed to win only their home games, and they did so easily, sending 17 goals past Liut in the three games at the Garden.
Liut had been the Blues' ace in the hole, the man many people thought could carry St. Louis all the way despite a middling defense. Down the stretch, though, he appeared to tire. Berenson, trying to finish in first place, played Liut in 27 of the final 30 regular-season games and all 11 playoff games. Against Pittsburgh in the first round and then the Rangers he allowed a total of 50 goals. Many were on rebounds. "Mike's as good as any goalie in hockey at stopping the initial shot," said Berenson. Unfortunately for St. Louis, the Ranger forwards swarmed past the Blues' defense for two and three shots at a crack.
They also did a lot of intimidating. Not the kind you hear about most often—the intimidation of my fist in your face—but six straight games of clean, hard bodychecking. Led by Beck, New York simply pounded the Blues into giving up the puck. "Even Hedberg and [Ulf] Nilsson are finishing their checks," said Patrick before the final game. "When we do that we're tough to beat."
New York's top individual scorer in postseason play has been none other than the cover boy himself. Duguay, who had only 38 points during the regular season, has 15 on eight goals and seven assists in 10 playoff games.
When Tkaczuk was sidelined, he was moved from right wing to center, fitting in between Steve Vickers and Dean Talafous. But Patrick's most astute move was switching Greschner from defense to left wing, where he skates with Hedberg and Nilsson. That line has scored a team-high 17 goals in the playoffs.
In Game 5 of the quarterfinals, at the Checkerdome, the Blues averted elimination by storming back from a 3-1 deficit. Liut, who made 34 saves, was magnificent in the 4-3 victory. But in Game 6 in New York he allowed three goals on five shots in the first period. When Beck scored on the first shot of the second period, the Rangers had a 4-0 lead. The Blues rallied for three goals in the next 2:07, but they eventually succumbed, 7-4.
Seven Rangers scored that night, and that balance was the biggest difference between the teams. St. Louis had only Bernie Federko's line on which to rely. Their second line, Blake Dunlop, Wayne Babych and Jorgen Pettersson, disappeared when the Rangers started checking everything that moved. After accounting for 111 goals in the regular season, that line scored only four times against the Rangers. "It wasn't just one of their lines that stopped us, it was all of them," said Dunlop. "They tried to eliminate us all over the ice. This is a different Ranger team than the one we played in the season. They've found some new combinations up front. Every aspect of their game has picked up. Beck was taking the man out. I've never seen him play with as much control.
"The Rangers always had good individuals," Dunlop went on, "but now they're playing as a team." He shook his head. "You play 91 games and you feel like this. It's not much fun."
They're young. They'll learn that you don't go all out for 91 games. You start after 70.