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 Colis�e de Qu�bec, 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
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.