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Carol Vadnais stood at the open window of his second-floor motel room in New York's suburban Westchester County the other morning, and busily threw clothes into the parking lot below. As monogrammed shirts, tailored slacks and custom-made sports coats floated earthbound, they were hurriedly gathered up and put into a car by Vadnais' waiting roommate, Dave Maloney, the New York Ranger captain. Not long ago an onlooker might have feared the worst from such a scene. Were the Rangers, who have not won the Stanley Cup in 38 years, finally being run out of town by their suffering fans?
No, Vadnais was merely dropping his cleaning out the window to Maloney to spare himself a trip down the stairs. The Rangers not only intend to stick around a while—until the laundry comes back, anyway—but under Fred Shero, their new coach and general manager, they rank with the Atlanta Flames as the surprise of the young NHL season. They even have stirred fears among rivals that the man who coached the Philadelphia Flyers to the top might soon do the same in New York.
That would be quite an achievement. As the Rangers stumbled to three straight last-place finishes in the Patrick Division, the word that best characterized their performances was "lackluster." Hockey's highest-paid team, they were called the New York Strangers and the worst team money could buy. Compounding the Rangers' problems, the New York Islanders won the Patrick Division title last season, in only their sixth year in the NHL. "The Islanders are a gutty team," said one New York fan. "No one has ever called the Rangers gutty. Gutless maybe." And the faithful became faithless. Madison Square Garden was no longer sold out for Ranger games, and the fans who did show up booed their fallen heroes mercilessly.
This season the Rangers started out conservatively, then reeled off a seven-game winning streak that included victories over Toronto and Montreal—at the Forum, no less. The streak was the Rangers' longest in four years. By the end of last week their 9-3-3 record was the second best in the NHL.
The most encouraging aspect of the surge is the way it has been fashioned. Last season the Rangers boasted talented young players like Left Wing Pat Hickey and Defenseman Ron Greschner, who scored 40 and 24 goals, respectively, as New York ranked a respectable sixth among 18 NHL clubs on offense. But inept goaltending and an utter distaste for body checking left the club in 12th place defensively. So there are the Rangers now, leading the league with a stingy 2.47 goals-against average. Goaltenders John Davidson, Wayne Thomas and Doug Soetaert have performed like All-Stars, thanks in part to the zealousness with which New York defensemen have been clearing the puck in front of them.
"If the goaltender on this club stops the first shot," says a grateful Davidson, "chances are the other team won't get another. They used to get one or two more every time."
The improved play of the Ranger defensemen, who as a group tend to be mobile but not overly big or aggressive, can be traced to a straightforward plea from Shero to "play your game but toughen up a little." To help them withstand the rougher going, Shero has rotated six defensemen instead of the four or five used by most teams. As one result, Maloney, who at 22 is the NHL's youngest captain, has been playing even more tenaciously than before, and the 23-year-old Greschner, a slick puck-handler previously known only for his offensive skills, has emerged as an all-round star.
The Rangers have also received a lift from those celebrated newcomers. Anders Hedberg and Ulf Nilsson, the swift-skating Swedes who last summer signed two-year contracts with New York for around $1 million apiece, making them hockey's highest-paid performers. The linemates had been goal-producing sensations for Winnipeg in the WHA, and while they haven't burned up the NHL, they have not exactly lost their scoring touch, either. Nilsson, a rosy cheeked center, leads the Rangers with six goals, while Hedberg, blond and bowlegged at right wing, has three goals and is tied with Greschner for the team lead with nine assists. "But what has helped most is their honesty," Shero says. "They go into the corner for the puck and take the body, and they don't care who's coming. And if they're supposed to go in front of the net, they go."
Shero refuses to make too much of the strong start. "It's too early to tell how good we are," he says. "Maybe we've just been lucky." But his players feel that there is nothing fluky about their improved play. "Before, there were only about six or seven teams we could usually count on legitimately beating," says Maloney. "Now I'd say the number is 12 or 13."
If the Rangers are indeed for real, nobody will be happier about it than Sonny Werblin, the impresario who 11 months ago took over as president of Madison Square Garden Corp., the parent company of the Rangers as well as the NBA Knicks. Werblin is best known in sports for having turned the bumbling New York Titans into the Super Bowl champion Jets—notably by signing Joe Namath to a three-year contract for a then shocking $400,000—and, more recently, for having made a winner of New Jersey's Meadowlands sports complex. With the Rangers, Werblin faces another stern test. "If they don't make the playoffs every year and go pretty far, they don't meet the payroll," Werblin says. "It's as simple as that."