Murdoch leads the NHL in the "important goals" category: 10 of his 28 scores have tied (at some point) or won games for the Rangers. He surprises goal-tenders with a well disguised and deadly accurate wrist shot, something that disappeared from hockey with the introduction of the slap shot. "When I was growing up in Cranbrook, B.C.," Murdoch says, "I used to shoot 200 pucks a day in my backyard after practice." He scored two goals in his first NHL game, then five—setting a Ranger record—at Minnesota in his fourth game. After all his goals, Murdoch does the Murder Shuffle, a war dance that includes a stutter step, a choo-choo-choo with his mouth and a pumping arm motion.
Murdoch inevitably has attracted the attention of the league's most physical players. "Guys are taking runs at me now," he says, "but it was a lot worse when I was at Medicine Hat and we played against Lethbridge. I mean, once you've played junior hockey in Western Canada, the NHL seems kind of tame. Heck, our games against Lethbridge used to average 3� hours."
Murdoch plays on a line with Center Walter Tkaczuk and Left Wing Greg Polis. When Boston's Mike Milbury punched away at Murdoch in one game, Tkaczuk—a former Fat Cat—charged across the ice to rescue his teammate and received a game misconduct penalty. Ferguson wildly applauded Tkaczuk's behavior; the old Tkaczuk, the $175,000-per-year center who scored only eight goals last season, would have watched the Milbury-Murdoch fray from a front-row seat. "I use the Tkaczuk-Polis-Murdoch line against the other teams' best line," says Ferguson. "Murdoch says he's just learning to check, but I use him to kill penalties, and when we beat Montreal, he limited Shutt to just one shot on goal."
Defensively, Ferguson also has made sweeping changes, dumping four of the veterans who contributed to last season's dismal goals-against record and keeping only Carol Vadnais. "If we're going to lose," he said, "I'd rather lose with kids." McEwen occasionally has defensive lapses but advances the puck skillfully, while Farrish plays solidly on defense but lacks McEwen's puck-carrying ability. Maloney, the third 20-year-old at the New York blue line, has been steady, aggressive and so physical that no one has tried to punch him in the mouth this year. Ron Greschner, an old man of 22, seems to have regained the flair he displayed as a rookie two years ago but rarely showed last season. One reason may be that Greschner, who used to avoid body contact, has taken to wearing a helmet and now skates madly into the corners.
Ferguson's rebuilding scheme almost went kaput last month, when regular Goaltender John Davidson injured his knee and underwent surgery that will keep him off the ice until March, but the flaky Gratton—a former Ottawa National, Buffalo Sabre, St. Louis Blue and Toronto Toro—has been surprisingly dependable in the nets.
Despite New York's unexpected success, Ferguson continues to be hard on his players. He benched Center Wayne Dillon for one game with a terse, "He'll play when he learns to check." After a 2-1 loss to the Islanders a fortnight ago, Ferguson said, "One mistake beat us. Rod Gilbert chased the defenseman in behind the net when he wasn't supposed to." At the same time, Ferguson has relaxed Francis' strict dress codes, and he always makes sure there is plenty of post-game "beer for the boys," as he calls it, on Ranger buses and planes.
On the flight home from Baltimore, Phil Esposito, Hodge and Vadnais—all former Bruins—regaled their young teammates with stories of their days with Bobby Orr. As Esposito was spinning a yarn to the spellbound Farrish, Murdoch interrupted him. "Hey, Espo," he said, "don't live in the past."