AFTER DISPOSING OF THE WASHINGTON CAPITALS IN five games in the
Eastern Conference semifinals, the New York Rangers found that their
most formidable opponent was not another NHL team but something
higher. ''With the Rangers, like any great team, it's not enough just
to win,'' said Capital center Dave Poulin. ''They want to set new
standards every time they go on the ice.''
Despite its early exit against New York, Washington proved to be a
far worthier opponent than the New York Islanders had been in the
previous round. After a disappointing regular season, the Caps, a
team burdened by a history of postseason failure, had stunned the
Pittsburgh Penguins in the first round of the playoffs.
David Poile, general manager of the Capitals, traditionally a
finesse team, had become tired of watching Washington being pushed
around in the postseason. So, over the past year he had assembled a
roster with a far nastier disposition. ''I'm not a Greenpeace guy
anymore,'' Poile had told one of his brethren before last season.
Of course, the Caps already had uber-pest Dale Hunter, the
most-penalized player in postseason history. And as the series
against New York began, Hunter was still brooding over a knee injury
sustained when he was tripped by Ranger forward Alexei Kovalev in a
November game, an act that had earned Kovalev a five-game suspension
and Hunter four weeks on the shelf.
In Game 1, a 6-3 New York victory, Hunter meted out plenty of
punishment, much of it after the whistle. At the end of the second
period he took a run at Ranger defenseman Jeff Beukeboom, setting off
a center-ice scrum. At the conclusion of the game Hunter chased
another New York defenseman, Sergei Zubov, around the ice, touching
off yet another Garden party. But as they had done in the series
against the Islanders, the Rangers largely resisted the temptation to
duke it out with the Caps. ''This is playoff hockey, and you know you
can't fight,'' said New York forward Esa Tikkanen. ''At this time of
year, you have to turn around and skate away.''
Sound advice, though Tikkanen chose an unorthodox way to show that
he was following it. Midway through the second period of the Rangers'
3-0 win in Game 3, Washington's Keith Jones tried to goad Tikkanen
into a penalty. Tikkanen didn't bite. Instead, he kissed Jones,
planting a smacker on the bridge of Jones's nose.
By prevailing in the first three games of the series and extending
their postseason winning streak to seven games, the Rangers provoked
uncharacteristically bold talk among New Yorkers of a sweep through
the entire playoffs. Such notions were laid to rest in Game 4, which
the Rangers lost 4-2 at the USAir Arena. And any sense of security
New York fans had acquired from the Rangers' early success rapidly
evaporated in the first period of Game 5, when Kevin Hatcher's
two-hopper from 135 feet dribbled past New York goalie Mike Richter.
However, when Ranger defenseman Brian Leetch broke a 3-3 tie with
the game- winning goal at 16:32 of the third period, New York rooters
were able to dismiss Hatcher's goal as a fluke. And the Rangers were
able to overcome their scariest opponent -- themselves.