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"Let faith oust fact; let fancy oust memory; I look deep down and do believe."
Those words, originally spoken by the mate Starbuck during the ill-fated voyage of Herman Melville's Pequod, may well have been on the lips of a man at the helm of another vessel that, until last week, appeared to be sinking—Bill Torrey of the New York Islanders. The faith—some say fancy—of the Islanders' general manager is that his team has the talent and the heart to win the Stanley Cup. The fact is that, had the NHL playoffs started last Saturday, the Islanders would not even have qualified. They were No. 18 in the 21-team league.
And the memory is a grim one: a semifinal loss to the underdog New York Rangers in last season's playoffs. It was the second year in a row that Torrey's young, ostensibly powerful Islanders had been upset before the finals, and almost everyone—the players included—expected some personnel changes in the off season. But Torrey stood pat, with disastrous results so far. After 26 games the Islanders were 9-13-4. Last season they lost only 15 of their 80 games and had the best record in hockey. But now they already have been defeated by such weak sisters as Detroit, St. Louis, Colorado and Vancouver—which combined for an 0-14-4 record against the 1978-79 Islanders—and, most humiliating of all, by an expansion team, the Edmonton Oilers. Not once, but twice.
"There's no question that our awful start is a carry-over from last year's playoff loss to the Rangers," admits Islander Forward Bob Bourne. "Subconsciously, you feel, 'Why beat our brains out before the playoffs? It doesn't get us anywhere anyway.' I hope we don't kid ourselves into thinking we can turn it around any time we want."
Last week, playing without All-Star Defenseman Denis Potvin, who will miss the next seven weeks following surgery to repair a torn ligament in his right thumb, the Islanders finally began to turn things around. On Thursday night they ended a stretch in which they had lost eight of 11 games—and silenced, at least temporarily, their disgruntled home fans—by edging the Boston Bruins 4-3, and on Saturday night they put together their first 60-minute effort of the year and stunned the Maple Leafs 6-1 at Toronto. Then, on Sunday night, the Islanders met New York's other struggling team, the Rangers, at Madison Square Garden and lost a wild shootout 5-4.
In a way, the Rangers' problems can be traced to that same semifinal series with the Islanders. Flushed with that success, the youthful Rangers seem to have let their Darlings-of-Broadway image go to their heads. They have been spending so much time stepping out in the New York night spots that they have been dancing a bit on the ice, forgetting that it was hard work in the less fashionable corners that brought the team success. As one Ranger official, says, "A little partying's all right, but you've got to pick your spots. This pace is going to wear them out." The Rangers played 5-9-1 hockey in November, including a humiliating 10-5 loss to their floundering neighbors on Long Island. Said one unsympathetic Islander, "The Rangers weren't really struggling like us. They just weren't putting out."
"Yes, we're just starting to get our intensity now," says Ranger Goalie John Davidson, the star of last spring's playoffs, who is just now regaining his form after an August knee operation. "We lost some people in the draft that I'm not sure management wanted to lose, like Pierre Plante and Nick Fotiu. They were tough guys. There're a lot of new faces around here, and it's going to take a while for them to blend in."
The prime reason for a number of the new faces is Barry (Bubba) Beck, 22, the 6'3", 215-pound defenseman whom the Rangers acquired from Colorado last month in exchange for four players, including three regulars, and a wad of cash. The strongest player in the league, Beck fills the "enforcer" void left by Fotiu's departure. But in his first month as a Ranger, Beck has fallen somewhat shy of expectations; slowed by a pulled groin muscle, he hasn't carried the puck well and too often has wandered too far from his defensive position.
Until two weeks ago, the blame for the Rangers' shoddy play—and the boos of the Garden crowds—was directed at the goaltenders—Davidson, Wayne Thomas and Doug Soetart, who had combined for a sky-high 4.17 goals-against average. Somewhat desperate, the Ranger management—and no one's really sure whether it's General Manager-Coach Fred Shero, Assistant GM Mickey Keating, Assistant Coach Mike Nykoluk, PR Director John Halligan, Assistant to the President Rod Gilbert or Madison Square Garden President Sonny Werblin who runs this club—called up Steve Baker, 22, from the New Haven farm club two weeks ago. In his first five games the Boston-born-and-raised Baker lost only once and had a 2.40 goals-against average. Not surprisingly, New York's fickle fans instantly took to Baker, whom John Ferguson, Shero's predecessor as Ranger coach, discovered at Union College in 1977.
When Baker was temporarily stunned by a shot last Wednesday during a 3-3 tie against the Chicago Black Hawks, Davidson skated out to check on Baker's health and was greeted by a chorus of boos from the Madison Square Garden crowd. As Davidson leaned over the fallen Baker, the catcalls rang, "Don't touch him! Don't even speak to him! What you've got might be catching."