A curious and confounding thing, this NHL playoff system. Come the opening round of Stanley Cup play, any sins committed during the regular season can be purged with one tumultuous best-of-five flourish. Or so it seemed last week when the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Hartford Whalers, fourth-place finishers this year and two of the NHL's most shameless sinners over the past few seasons, donned halos and pulled off three-game sweeps of Chicago and Quebec, the regular-season champions of the Norris and Adams divisions, respectively.
It was stunning enough that the Leafs and Whalers, who had only the 19th- and 11th-best records in the 21-team NHL, were able to eliminate the teams with the eighth- and fourth-best records. What made the opening round even more jolting was the scare that the No. 14 New York Rangers were simultaneously throwing into the Patrick Division champion Philadelphia Flyers, whose 110 regular-season points ranked behind only the Edmonton Oilers' 119. The Rangers and Flyers were knotted at two wins apiece going into this week's deciding fifth game in Philadelphia, and long-suffering Ranger fans gave their team the heroes' treatment following its 5-2 triumph over the Flyers Saturday night, just as the home crowd in Maple Leaf Gardens did as the Leafs were clinching their series against Chicago. "It made me feel I was in a different building," Toronto goalie Ken Wregget marveled afterward. "It was one big thunderdome."
The Toronto victory was a particularly sweet one for a tradition-laden team that won the Stanley Cup four out of six seasons in the mid-'60s. The Leafs had made the playoffs only once in the past four seasons and had finished dead last in the league a year ago. They were spared the same humiliation this year by earning 57 points over 80 games (nine more than in 1984-85) while Los Angeles (54 points) and fellow Norris Division laughingstock Detroit (40) had fallen on hard times. All of which helps explain the headiness of those veteran Leafs, defenseman Borje Salming and right wing Rick Vaive, who stood embracing after Saturday night's victory. "This was sweet for both of us," said Vaive. "For the first time in many summers, I'll be able to walk around with my head held high. It has been a long, long time."
Obviously unimpressed with the Leafs' prospects, some 4,000 season-ticket holders, nearly a third of the total, waived their option to reserve seats for the playoffs. That turned out to be a mistake. Toronto is a club blessed with young talent—Wendel Clark, Al Iafrate, Russ Courtnall and Gary Nylund were all first-round draft picks, from the past four seasons, who were seeing their first playoff action—and the fact that the Leafs had beaten the Hawks in six of eight games during the season was certainly an omen.
Also, Chicago had been in a rut since March 1, going only 7-10 thereafter and needing a victory over the St. Louis Blues in the final game of the regular season to win the Norris. Still...losing to the Maple Leafs in the playoffs? "We have only ourselves to blame," said Blackhawk left wing Al Secord. "We gave them confidence by losing to them [all those times] in the regular season."
The Maple Leafs outskated, out-hit, outfought and outmuscled the Hawks in the first two playoff games before stunned sellout crowds in Chicago Stadium. They won Game 1, 5-3, as Steve Thomas, who had scored but four goals in his last 39 games, accounted for two and an assist. Wregget, a 22-year-old stand-up goaltender who came on late in the season, starred the next night, stopping 42 shots as the Leafs overcame Blackhawk center Denis Savard's four goals in the first two periods to pull out a 6-4 victory.
Then the Leafs came home to ancient Maple Leaf Gardens to find that scalpers were having a field day, with the once unwanted tickets going for $125 Saturday night. "When I heard that greeting from this crowd, I knew good things would happen," said coach Dan Maloney. For more than two minutes the play-off-starved sellout crowd stood and cheered. And all during the game the building rocked with the chant "Wreg-get, Wreg-get." "That was a first," the goalie said. "I hope it's not the last." The Leafs stormed to a 5-0 lead on the way to a 7-2 blowout as Courtnall contributed two goals and an assist.
"We were jumping up and down on the bench," said leftwinger Thomas. "It was so incredible, the noise...."
The Leafs had the third-worst defensive record during the season, having given up 386 goals. So, naturally, they limited the Hawks—hockey's third-leading team in scoring, with 351 goals—to nine goals in three games. The Leafs also had the league's second-worst power play, scoring on just 18.4% of its regular-season chances. So, naturally, they scored on five of 15 chances against Chicago.
And, naturally, Harold Ballard, the Leafs' owner, who has a running feud with the Toronto media, made sure to get into the act. With six minutes remaining Saturday, the scoreboard read: HAROLD BALLARD WISHES TO THANK THE TORONTO MEDIA FOR ALL THEIR GREAT SUPPORT THIS SEASON. The message was replayed near the end of the game just to make sure his pals in press row got the point.
At almost the same moment, in the Hartford Civic Center Coliseum, another group of local reporters was getting a different needle from Whaler coach Jack Evans, who had just seen his team complete its sweep of Quebec. Approaching a group of newsmen in the basement of the building, Evans said, "Well, you all wanted to see this. I'm going to give it to you. Once." And then he smiled. Briefly. Evans is a man who doesn't talk or smile much in the best of times, and this had been a trying season.
The nadir for the Whalers had come in February when after showing promise of getting into postseason play for the first time since the 1979-80 season, the Whalers plunged to the bottom of the Adams Division standings. From Jan. 27 through March 1, their record was 2-13-1. "In your best year a hockey club's going to hit a valley," said Whaler G.M. Emile Francis. Defenseman Dave Babych also had topography in mind when asked about the situation in mid-slump. "A losing streak is like falling off a cliff," he said. "You know it'll come to an end sometime."
With the Whalers in the depths of their slide, "Dump Jack [Evans]!" became the chant of choice at the Civic Center. Things got so bad that the front office ordered the announcer at the Civic Center not to introduce the coaches at the start of games. "All that was doing was encouraging them to pick on Jack," Francis said. But Hartford continued to lose and the fans continued to ride Evans. "People were jumping out of their seats," says goalie Mike Liut. "They were like a British soccer crowd."
On March 7, after a win in Buffalo, Evans reportedly became so enraged at Randy Smith, a writer for the Manchester Journal Inquirer, that he shoved Smith into a concrete wall. Smith filed harassment charges, and the matter will come before a mediator in Buffalo sometime after the playoffs.
Slowly, the Whalers clawed their way back to respectability over the final third of the season. Team captain Ron Francis (broken left ankle) and right wing Kevin Dineen (sprained right knee) recovered from their injuries and began to provide the offense the Whalers had been missing. General Manager Francis also traded defenseman Risto Siltanen to the Nordiques for winger John Anderson to further bolster the offense. The Whalers closed out the regular season by winning 12 of 17 games to beat out Buffalo for the right to face Quebec.
"The turning point was the first game, when we played well but we lost," said Quebec coach Michel Bergeron. Game 1, in Le Colisée de Québec, was settled, 3-2, by an overtime goal by left wing Sylvain Turgeon. Hartford received superb goaltending in that one from Liut, who stopped 37 Nordique shots. Hartford won Game 2 as Liut made another 26 saves. "We took away their scoring and stood them up at the blue line," Liut exulted afterward. On Saturday, the Whalers scored a power play and a shorthanded goal in the first six minutes and skated on to a 9-4 win.
"There's an old saying, 'From adversity comes some good,' " said Evans, sending his sportswriting friends scurrying for their Bartlett's.
The adversity for the Flyers was that they actually faced a winner-take-all fifth game against the Rangers. Never mind that the Flyers finished 32 points ahead of the New Yorkers this season or had beaten them 16 of 17 times over the past two seasons, including six of seven in 1985-86. The Rangers got strong goal-tending from John Vanbiesbrouck, who had been in the nets for 31 of the Rangers' 36 regular-season wins. He excelled in a stunning 6-2 series-opening victory in the Spectrum on Wednesday, and did so again when the Flyers outshot the Rangers 44-12 in Game 2 but beat the New Yorkers by 2-1. In Game 3 in Madison Square Garden, Vanbiesbrouck's teammates on offense provided more help, scoring three times in :38 of the third period to break open what had been a tight game, and put the Rangers up 2-1 with the next game on their home ice.
The Flyers finally got to Vanbiesbrouck on Sunday, shelling him and backup goalie Glen Hanlon 7-1 behind center Peter Zezel's three goals and an assist. But the Rangers' surprisingly tough showing in the series had inspired Garden fans to new depths of raucous-ness and tasteless chants, prompting G.M. Craig Patrick to explain, bafflingly, after Saturday night's win, "New York fans are pretty predictable. I don't know how they'll react tomorrow night."
The opening round already had proved to be just as predictable.