As hot as the New York rangers have been through the first three weeks of the NHL season, they haven't generated half the steam that was coming out of the ears of New York Islander coach Al Arbour last Saturday night. After blowing a three-goal third-period lead and settling for a 5-5 tie with the Rangers on Friday, the Islanders lost both the rematch and their heads the following night.
Dean Chynoweth, a frustrated Islander, brought his stick up high on Ranger rookie Troy Mallette before a faceoff in the dying minutes of the Rangers' 4-1 victory. Mallette then scratched Chynoweth around the eye during the fight that ensued. More ugliness followed, and Arbour and Ranger coach Roger Neilson took several steps toward each other after the final buzzer.
Thirty minutes after the game, Arbour was waiting as Neilson walked past the Islander locker room on his way out of Nassau Coliseum. "You have a lot of nerve, Roger," screamed Arbour. "Your guy tried to gouge my guy. You're the biggest front-runner in the league. You only yap when you're on top."
It is true that the Rangers have been in front before in the 49 years since they last won the Stanley Cup, but each time they have wound up somewhere back in the pack—often because they overrated their talent. The Rangers are not yapping this year, not even after beating the Vancouver Canucks 5-3 and tying the Edmonton Oilers 3-3 before the home-and-home games against the Islanders. At week's end, the Rangers had an eight-game unbeaten streak, the league's best record and a six-point Patrick Division lead.
But the team's management is taking all of this success in stride. "What we're trying to do here is bring this down to a level where things are calm, where we're like the other respected organizations," says the new general manager, Neil Smith.
In fact, the Rangers are so laid back that someone may have to start taking pulses. After they beat Philadelphia 3-1 at the Spectrum on Oct. 21, checking like no Ranger team in memory, Neil-son was low-key. "It wouldn't surprise me if the entire division finishes within a few games of .500," he said quietly. He also downplayed the Rangers' three-goal comeback against the Islanders on Friday. "It's too early to think about the Stanley Cup yet," he said. "Not till you win a couple of rounds in the playoffs."
If the Rangers do that next spring, it will take two more playoff rounds than they won last year, when Pittsburgh's broom swept them, as well as then Ranger general manager "Trader Phil" Esposito, out the door in four straight. Still, the Rangers had been in first place for 79 days last season—as late as March 9—before they were hit by injuries and ran out of gas.
With two games to go in the regular season, Esposito fired coach Michel Bergeron for insubordination and jumped behind the bench himself. Fact is, most of the Rangers weren't sorry to say goodbye to Bergeron, whose doghouse was deeper than his bench and who didn't have much of a defensive system. But Esposito was not the man for the job.
He certainly hadn't displayed the patience needed to lead a team. In his three seasons as general manager of the Rangers, Esposito made 45 trades—some terrible, some good. But two things were hard for Jack Diller, the executive vice-president of the Madison Square Garden Sports Group, to ignore:
1) Esposito inherited a team in 1986 that had reached the semifinals, but Espo's Rangers never won a playoff round;
2) the players who formed the nucleus of the team—Brian Leetch, Ulf Dahlen, Tomas Sandstrom and goalie John Vanbiesbrouck—were all draft picks that were chosen by Esposito's predecessor, Craig Patrick.
When Diller fired Esposito after last season's playoffs, he talked to some big names—Herb Brooks, Scotty Bowman and Bob Johnson—about the general manager position. He also interviewed Smith, the 35-year-old scouting director for the Detroit Red Wings who also had spent time in the Islander organization. In July, Smith was finally given the job and, along with it, a chance to hire his own people and do things his own way.
The coach he chose, the 55-year-old Neilson, isn't exactly a bite of the Big Apple. Neilson's idea of a good time is freeze-framing an hour of penalty-killing on the VCR while his trusty old dog, Mike, lies at his feet.
This is Neilson's fifth coaching job in the NHL but, despite his peregrinations, Smith thought he was a man who could bring stability to the Rangers. "This is a pretty young team, and Roger has been an excellent teaching coach," says Smith. "He is low-key, nonegotistical and calm."
In other words, the very things New York City isn't. "I had a few second thoughts," says Neilson. "It seems like there is always turmoil on New York teams, and I was afraid the team was too thin for the division."
True, the Rangers aren't very robust at center. Esposito pried the talented Carey Wilson from Hartford last season, but Wilson isn't a very physical player. On top of that, he sprained his knee on Saturday and could miss several weeks. Another Ranger center, Kelly Kisio, doesn't mind the muck, but at 5'9", 170 pounds, he's a little undersized. He also has back problems. The rest of the center-ice corps consists of three rookies: Mallette, Mark Janssens and Darren Turcotte, who stretched his goal-scoring streak to seven games on Saturday, giving him nine goals in eleven games.
A number of the other parts requisite for a Stanley Cup contender appear to be in place. Wingers Sandstrom and Dahlen are strong, fearless and consummately skilled. Veteran wing John Ogrodnick, whom Bergeron told at one point a year ago to stop coming to practice because of his uninspired play, scored nine goals in the Rangers' first 12 games. "I approached camp like it was the playoffs," said Ogrodnick, who is in the last year of his contract.
Vanbiesbrouck is off to an excellent start, and if he gets enough work to recapture his fine form of 1985-86, the goaltending will be of Cup caliber. The Rangers' greatest strength, however, is a young and mobile defense, keyed by Leetch, last season's NHL Rookie of the Year. Leetch has the shot and passing touch to be a dominating player, and he should benefit from Neilson's teaching.
Whatever the Rangers' potential, the big news from the Big Apple is that Smith intends to let them fulfill it. "Trades reflect instability," he says. "I think they should be used only selectively to supplement good draft choices." Seems that after all these years of ups and downs, only when the Rangers become quietly efficient will they prove to be worth screaming about.