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The Rangers had just scored a stunning 4-3 victory over the Islanders to take a three-games-to-two lead in their all-New York war to gain the Stanley Cup finals, and now, as midnight approached on Long Island last Saturday, Phil Esposito was pointing in the direction of Ranger Coach Fred (The Fog) Shero and saying, "I can understand how Philadelphia beat Boston that year."
"That year" was 1974, when Shero's Flyers defeated the Big Bad Bruins of Esposito and Orr to win the first of their two Stanley Cups. Esposito, who is 37 and well battered but still plays wonderful hockey, can better understand that upset these days, because Shero is now his coach and the spirited Rangers were treating the heavily favored Islanders, who had the NHL's best record this season, with much the same disdain that the Flyers showed the Bruins in 1974.
Executing a disciplined style of play rarely seen during the regular schedule—they finished a whopping 25 points, or 12½ games, behind the Islanders in the Patrick Division—the Rangers had their suburban rivals wondering what had hit them. Goaltenders Chico Resch and Billy Smith aside, the Islanders this season were essentially a team of four players—Defenseman Denis Potvin and the Trio Grande line of NHL scoring champion Bryan Trottier centering for 69-goal-scorer Mike Bossy and Left Wing Clark Gillies. Realizing this, Shero and Assistant Coach Mike Nykoluk (see box, page 33) shrewdly implemented tactics that made the Islanders' Big Four seem like no-shows most of the time.
Potvin did win Game 2 for the Islanders with a deflected goal in overtime, but in each game the Rangers harassed Potvin so mercilessly with aggressive fore-checking that he was unable to embark on any of his spectacular end-to-end rushes. Shero had the Rangers employ the same strategy against Potvin that the Flyers had used so successfully against Bobby Orr in 1974; that is, they threw the puck into Potvin's corner and made him handle it time after time. Then the Ranger forecheckers arrived and forced Potvin to pass to a teammate. However, instead of peeling off Potvin and following the puck, one forechecker always stayed with him.
"They are staring right into my eyes even after I give up the puck," said the perplexed Potvin.
"The whole idea is to get yourself in a position where Potvin cannot create a give-and-go situation, which he's famous for," said Ranger Steve Vickers.
As for the Trio Grande, Trottier, who had 47 goals and 87 assists during the regular season, scored the Islanders' only goal in their 4-1 loss in Game 1 but then was shut off by centers Walt Tkazcuk and Esposito, both of whom utilized a no-holds-barred technique. Bossy not only failed to score a goal or even an assist, but he also was able to get off a total of just six shots against Ranger Goaltender John Davidson. Forwards Pat Hickey and Vickers easily blunted Bossy's firepower by staying between Bossy and Davidson whenever the puck was in the Ranger zone, and also by body-checking Bossy at every opportunity. Gillies, a reputed muscleman in the corners, missed more Rangers than he hit. Total output for the Trio Grande: one goal and one assist in five games.
The Islanders' Big Four was at its worst on the power play. In 80 regular-season games, the Islanders led the NHL with 81 power-play goals, including a league-high 27 by Bossy. However, they were 0 for 19 on their power play against the Rangers, and on Saturday night looked so inept, so tentative, that when one Ranger was called for a penalty, Islander fans yelled, "Decline it."
Still, the Islanders were alive, if not well, as the clock wound down on Game 5. They had tied the series at two games apiece on Bob Nystrom's overtime goal Thursday night in Madison Square Garden, and they tied Saturday's game at 2-2 on Mike Kaszycki's goal at 4:20 of the third period—a goal that Davidson swears never entered the net. Breaking over the blue line, Kaszycki fired a slap shot that deflected off Defenseman Carol Vadnais' ankle and then floated goal-ward like a knuckleball. Davidson fell backward when the puck changed direction, then watched as the puck hit the post over his head and dropped onto his blocking glove.
"It didn't go in," Davidson says. "I'm positive. I watched it." Nonetheless, the goal judge—a neutral official from Buffalo—ruled that the puck broke the plane of the goal line while in the air.