Buffalo makes it look easy

One team made it look easy (Buffalo), two others let their opponents off the hook for one game before reeling them in (N.Y. Islanders, Philadelphia Flyers), and a fourth is still coming back from an early surprise stinging (Montreal).

That's the situation heading into the National Hockey League's semifinal playoffs, with three of the four slots now determined. Only the Buffalo Sabres still have a perfect record after their convincing quarterfinal series victory, 4 games to 0, over the Chicago Black Hawks.

The Sabres made it look easy throughout, winning big at home in the first two games (5-0, 6-4) and then keeping control in tighter contests at Chicago (2-1, 3 -2).

Chicago coach Eddie Johnston was unable to find a strategy to check the high-scoring Sabres. Johnston even tried backup Mike Veisor in goal for Game 2, replacing Tony Esposito, named by Sporting News this week to its first team All-Star selections. The Sabres' Gil Perreault set a team record with four assists in Game 2, teaming with Rick Martin and Danny Gare to give Buffalo plenty of scoring punch, while netminders Don Edwards and Bob Suave held the Black Hawks to an average of less than two goals per game.

Buffalo coach and general manager Scotty Bowman also kept alive his chance to become the first coach to win consecutive Stanley Cups with different teams. He led the Montreal Canadiens to a cup win over the New York Rangers last season.

Bowman already has set one personal record during the Black Hawks series, winning his 103rd NHL playoff game, the most for any coach. The record had been held by Dick Irvin, whose teams won 100 games and dropped 90 in Stanley Cup play during his 24-year coaching career at Toronto, Montreal, and Chicago.

Of course not just Buffalo swept into the final four with amazing ease. Both the Flyers and the Islanders were on the verge of similar sweeps, leading their opponents 3 games to 0, only to concede a game before closing out their series.

The Islanders managed to outplay the Boston Bruins at their own game -- physical play and relentless opportunism. The New York team collected two hard-fought overtime wins in Boston Garden and followed them with a convincing third- game victory at home to take a comfortable series lead.

The New Yorkers then came within 20 seconds of capturing Game 4 when the desperate Bruins, who pulled goalie Gerry Cheevers in favor of an all-out attack , tied the games as Rick Middleton's stick flicked out of a jam-up in front of Islander goalie Billy Smith to knock the puck home. Terry O'Reilly got the overtime winner as Cheevers held off a strong Islander assault.

But the game only saved a little pride for Boston as the Islanders wrapped up the series back at Boston Garden Tuesday, 4-2. The Islanders, who last year boasted the league's best regular-season record only to be dumped out of the playoffs in the semifinals by their crosstown rivals, the Rangers, got off to a slow start this season. Now they have a chance to enter the semifinals with a "dark horse" tag, something that should take some of the pressure off them in the next round.

Over at Madison Square Garden, the New York Rangers did not fare as well this year.

A three-goal outburst by the Rangers' Ron Duguay in Game 4 was all that prevented the Philadelphia Flyers from sweeping their series with the Rangers in four straight. The Flyers scored an easy 6-2 victory in Game 5 Tuesday night to take the series, 4 games to 1.

After breezing through the regular season with the league's best record, Philadelphia, especially on defense, had looked vulnerable in the late going, and the team had to struggle to overcome Edmonton in the opening playoff round.

But with rookie-of-the-year candidate Peter Peeters solid in goal and Bill Barber and Rick MacLeish scoring well, the Flyers found reversing last year's quarterfinal loss to the Rangers (also by a 4-1 margin) was an easy task.

It's been a classic case of a talented upstart vs. the king-of-the-hill in a dramatically shifting series between the defending Stanley Cup champion Montreal Canadiens and the Minnesota North Stars, with Montreal currently holding a 3-2 lead.

The defending champions had been stung by Minnesota in the first tow games of the series, and on Montreal home ice at that. It marked the first time since 1966 that the Canadiens had lost consecutive home games in the playoffs. And the 3-0 shutout registered by Minnesota goalie Gilles Meloche in Game 1 was the first against the Canadiens in a playoff game at the Forum since 1967.

The North Stars, a fast-skating club that in some ways mirrors Montreal, has built its team with a sold core of seven American players, including 1980 Olympian Steve Christoff.

The opening back-to-back victories seemed likely to be the high-water mark for the North Stars, at least for this season. The three straight thumpings dished out by the Canadiens means they can take the series either by winning tonight in Minnesota or back home at the Forum this weekend.

One note of caution remains for Montreal. Injuries that kept key players off the ice for the Canadiens -- including perennial All-Stars Guy Lafleur, Serge Savard, and Guy Lapointe -- continue to darken the chances of a successful defense of their title.

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