It was Philadelphia against New York last week in the first round of the NHL playoffs—the feared, balanced Flyers against the erratic and decidedly unorthodox Rangers, of whom there have been 46 this year, a league record. The Flyers had been the class of the Patrick Division all season; New York slunk into postseason play through a window in the divisional basement.
For the Flyers it seemed the perfect opportunity to exorcise memories of last year's Round 1 playoff loss to another Ranger team that had not distinguished itself during the regular season. They could have taught New York—a.k.a. Team Flux—and its G.M.-VP-acting coach-horse trader-alchemist, Phil Esposito, a lesson: Espo, the NHL regular season is not your private 80-game Hockey Lab, to be spent tinkering and experimenting with bodies and line combinations from October through March. You can't finish under .500, lose eight of your last 11 games and then turn it on in April.
Or can you?
At week's end the 100-point team and the 76-point team were tied at two games apiece in the best-of-seven series, and the Flyers were on their heels, reeling from a thorough 6-3 reaming on Sunday night in Madison Square Garden. On paper the series had looked like no contest: brawn, solid defense and scoring punch versus scoring punch and little else. Yet the Rangers were very much alive, because they refused to play the games on paper and, for the most part, to trade punches with the Flyers.
That's right. These Flyers unfortunately have a tendency to play the hockey of their predecessors. Despite the gentlemanly influence of defenseman Mark Howe, certain Flyers frequently revert to the flagrantly belligerent tactics of those Broad Street Bullies of yore, lore and gore, Bob Kelly and Dave Schultz. A month ago Flyers heavyweight Dave Brown cross-checked Ranger forward Thomas Sandstrom in the face. The Rangers captured the sickening moment on videotape, and Espo forwarded a cassette to the league office. Brown was suspended for five games. "I don't understand the deliberate intent to injure," said Esposito. "I played this game for a long time and never deliberately tried to hurt anyone—except the Russians."
No one likes a tattletale, and the Flyers were ready to make the Rangers pay for Brown's suspension. So, on Thursday night in Philadelphia, the Flyers, having been shut out by John Vanbiesbrouck 3-0 in Game 1, came out swinging and grinding and forechecking and pounding the boards. New York hit back, which isn't its style, and lost big, 8-3. On Saturday night in New York, the Flyers played solid hockey—no goon stuff—and won 3-0 as rookie Ron Hextall got the shutout. The next night, New York skated to a quick 3-0 lead and then survived the Flyers' Goon Show to win 6-3. Whether the Rangers were slow on the draw Sunday because they have estimable self-control or because they're among the worst fighters in the league was undetermined. "The way to beat the Flyers is to look away," said Ranger winger Don Maloney. "They may feel tougher, but it's a nicer feeling to win."
"They're not their own men, they're puppets," said Ranger forward George McPhee. He was talking about Brown and Craig Berube—who have a future as a pro wrestling tag team if hockey doesn't work out—whom Philadelphia coach Mike Keenan had sent onto the ice before a face-off late in the second period. Their mission was embarrassingly plain: Stir something up. Instantly it was Wrestlemania on Ice, a disgrace to the game. "It's almost comical," said McPhee, the target of both Brown and Berube. "Intimidation doesn't work anymore."
As NHL rivalries go, Philadelphia-New York doesn't compete with the history and ill will of a Calgary-Edmonton or a Montreal-Quebec. Not that the Rangers and Flyers go antique hunting together in the off-season. The teams see more than enough of each other during the regular season, and before this series they met in the playoffs four of the last five years, with the Rangers winning three of the first four times. "It must be their uniforms," says Flyer captain Dave Poulin, implying that it couldn't be the bodies inside those jerseys....
But how would Poulin, or anybody, for that matter, really know? The Ranger roster is too difficult a document to nail down. Gunning for instant results, Espo made 16 trades between July 29 and the March 10 deadline. Some, like defenseman Kjell (the Killer Flamingo) Samuelsson and a 1989 No. 2 pick to Philly for goalie Bob Froese, were steals. Others, like trading the rights to Reijo Ruotsalainen to the Oilers for mostly future considerations, are more difficult to defend. Two other Esposito acquisitions, Walt Poddubny and ex-L.A. King Marcel Dionne, have had quiet playoffs. (Poddubny, the Rangers' leading scorer in the regular season, failed to score; Dionne had a goal and an assist.) How the Rangers cope with the Flyers will influence how history judges Espo's compulsive swapping.
"We're going to play our game, and they can do whatever the hell they want," said Esposito. On Sunday he and Hextall—who had been swinging his stick at the Rangers and spoiling for fights—had a shouting match while 17,457 spectators looked on.
Overnight, Hextall had gone from adamite to balsa. Of the 10 first-period Ranger shots he faced Sunday, three flew past him. Keenan pulled him for Chico Resch, only to reinsert Hextall at 8:09 of the second period when New York went on a four-minute power play, the result of Flyer Lindsay Carson's mugging of Froese inside the crease. Philly survived that sentence, but two more stupid penalties led to two more Ranger goals—and that was it.
The victory on Sunday also put to rest, for the moment, suspicions that the Rangers were in poor physical condition, the result of Espo's boys-will-be-boys approach to hockey and to life itself. The NHL's most geriatric team, New York had come out like gangbusters in the first period of each game but slowed noticeably in the later stages. Was fitness a problem? "It better not be," said Ranger captain Ron Greschner after Game 3. As for the health-nut Flyers, conditioning coach Pat Croce tests them for strength and wind once a month. Their body fat is monitored; their diets are regulated.
"I'm not saying they're in bad shape," says Flyer winger Rick Tocchet. "I'm saying we're in tip-top shape—the best ever." Tocchet should worry less about his wind and more about his temper. He has scored three goals in the series, but he has also served 16 penalty minutes. "I know I need to stay out of the penalty box," says Tocchet. "Controlled aggression. That's what I have to keep reminding myself."
His teammates and his coach should do likewise.