At 9:04 the Rangers regained the lead 3-2 when Esposito passed into the slot to Defenseman Ron Greschner, who beat Smith with a low shot to the stick side. That edge held up for all of 29 seconds as Nystrom—doing his Bossy imitation—whipped a turnaround forehand through Davidson to make it 3-3. Suddenly play became wide open as both teams passed spectacularly and forced Davidson and Smith to make fine saves.
With slightly more than two minutes to play, Anders Hedberg, the Rangers' $600,000-a-year Swedish import, suddenly found himself with the puck during a scramble in front of the Islander goal. He hesitated until Smith was down, then flipped a backhand into the net for the winning score. "I looked up at the clock," Hedberg said, "and thought, 'I hope this is the winner. I do not want to play another overtime.' "
Small wonder. The Rangers had lost the second and fourth games to the Islanders in sudden death. In fact, they were 8-0 in regulation time during the playoffs but 0-3 in O.T.
All week long the cosmopolitan, sophisticated Big Apple—the city that had yawned through the NHL-Soviet Challenge Cup, the "Series of the Century"—was foaming at the very mention of hockey. Scalpers were getting $250 for a single $22 ticket for the Rangers-Islanders semifinal and talking of a $500 ticket for the Cup finals. A furor of sorts arose over the refusal of the teams to televise the games except to cable subscribers; and as many as 4,000 people paid their way into the Garden's adjoining Felt Forum to see the games on closed circuit.
Ranger fans could be forgiven their exuberance. Hard times, of course, are the norm, the team having been to the Stanley Cup finals only twice since 1940—the last year it won the Cup. And it was the Islanders themselves who precipitated the Rangers' most recent fall from grace, J.P. Parise ousting the Rangers from the 1975 playoffs with the quickest overtime goal in history—11 seconds—after intercepting a Vickers pass.
The truth of the matter was, no one could remember ever seeing so much interest in hockey in New York, and starry-eyed talk about a network television contract began to be heard. Said Islander General Manager Bill Torrey, "It reminds me of a Toronto-Montreal semifinal or final, where hockey's the only thing on people's minds."
What was on Torrey's mind most of the time, though, was his team's mental state. Each day the New York papers portrayed the Islanders as tight, nervous, dry of mouth, while the Rangers came off as blithe spirits who played golf when they weren't on the ice. "We're a happy bunch," Shero said dourly.
"Some of my guys are pressing," said Torrey of his Islanders. "They read in the papers how our team is tight, and they think 'I'm not tight. I'd better get tight.' So they do."
Said Islander Coach Al Arbour, "Our guys have had fun all year. A lot of this is being created by the media. The thing is, the players can't believe that junk. They've got to believe in themselves."
Still, every team has a distinctive character, and Arbour admits that the Islanders have been "force-fed on winning." Potvin describes the team as "serious." Resch, one of the few Islanders who likes to express his insights, said, "Naturally, by Newton's Law of Tightivity, we're going to be tighter than the Rangers. We're expected to win and they're not. But if it's handled right, being tight can be an advantage—the same as being loose can. The Canadiens are always tighter in outward appearance than the teams they play this time of year."