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;