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In the end, which came last Friday night when the New York Rangers eliminated the St. Louis Blues in Game 6 of their Stanley Cup quarterfinal series, it may have been Barry (Bubba) Beck who gained the most. Certainly more than the Rangers as a team, whose surprising performance through two rounds of the playoffs only deepens the shame of their 30-36-14 regular-season record and 13th-place finish. "They cheated the fans," says their coach, Craig Patrick. Their reward for beating the Blues? Probably a good thrashing in the semi-finals from the New York Islanders.
The Sasson jeans people have been running TV commercials featuring Phil Esposito, Ron Greschner, Anders Hedberg and Don Maloney dancing, singing ("Oo-la-la, Sasson," etc.) off-key and grinning like monkeys. While the Rangers were losing 18 of their first 24 games, some of their fans angrily sang back, "Oo-la-la, baboons!"
The Blues, on the other hand, made the mistake of taking the regular season seriously—they finished second in the league—instead of giving their fans a five-month song-and-dance like the Rangers. They allowed 29 goals in the New York series, which make's for a long summer to wonder whether 72 games weren't a bit much even for a goalie like Mike Liut.
Beck's reward for his playoff performance has been peace of mind. He didn't silence his critics, who had called him overrated, so much as the nagging voice at the back of his mind that had him wondering if he would ever again play as well as he had as a rookie in 1977-78, when he had 60 points for Colorado. After Beck fell off to 42 points the next year, the Rockies traded him to the Rangers. He was good for 65 points in 1979-80, but this season he had only 34, and New York had to scramble in its last 10 games just to make the playoffs. The big (6'3", 215 pounds), dominant defenseman who was supposed to lead the Darlings of Broadway to the Stanley Cup was a bust. And they had traded four players to get him.
But something happened those last 10 games. "It wasn't that he didn't fit in before," says one Ranger. "He just didn't feel comfortable until then. When they trade half a team for you, even if the guys accept you right away, it takes time to fit in—at least in your own mind."
Especially if your mind isn't fully focused on hockey. " Manhattan isn't the easiest place to play," says Beck. "There are a lot of...distractions." He chooses not to be specific, which is for the best, because the Rangers are an easily distractible lot. Among the hockey-related excuses they offer for their dismal regular-season record are: 1) Center Walt Tkaczuk's eye injury in February that has kept him out of the lineup ever since; 2) penalties ( New York was second in the league in penalty minutes); 3) the disruptive effect of the firing of Coach Fred Shero in November; 4) the disruptive effect of Phil Esposito's retirement in January; 5) and the disruptive effect of playing before hostile fans in Madison Square Garden. Then there was Forum magazine cover boy Ron Duguay's talk of playing out his option, plus the uncertainty over whether Herb Brooks, the U.S. Olympic coach, would take over the team in March from Patrick, his Lake Placid assistant.
Not one of the Rangers would suggest that, during the season, the club put a higher priority on looking good off the ice than it did on looking good on it, though the general attitude of the team is best summed up by the player who said, "Under the system, you get away with what you can, right? But not in the playoffs." Only New York very nearly misjudged what it could get away with.
After 70 games the Rangers were 24-34-12, and with seven of their last 10 games against teams ahead of them in the standings, it looked as if they might miss the playoffs. "I didn't do a thing," says Patrick with a straight face. "The players got together and decided it was time to play playoff hockey."
Playoff hockey, for the uninitiated, means that everybody tries. You block shots, finish checks and hustle. It's a nice change. During those last 10 games New York showed there was, indeed, substance behind the style. The Rangers shut out Philadelphia twice, ended Montreal's 24-game unbeaten streak at home, beat Boston and Chicago and lost an away game to the Islanders by only 2-1. In all they were 6-2-2 with a 2.4 goals-against average. New York qualified for the playoffs by three points.
"Beck emerged as the leader in that stretch," says injured Ranger Goaltender John Davidson. When Esposito retired and Tkaczuk was injured, there was a void at the top, and the players looked to Beck. The Ranger management made him captain, and the extra responsibility had a marked effect on his play. His selection also affected the rest of the team. "He doesn't have to say very much, but you listen because he's so damn big," says one teammate.