New York — This is the biggest, toughest city of them all -- and almost nothing excites the general populace. World leaders come and go, causing scarcely a hair to turn. Miss America has no better luck hailing a cab in the rain than the average secretary. Rock stars draw little more attention than street musicians.
But now bursts forth an attraction of commanding enough proportions to captivate the congested millions for at least the next week: a Ranger-Islander Stanley Cup hockey playoff series, starting tonight at the Nassau Coliseum on Long Island.
The other semifinal, Minnesota vs. Calgary, presents its own fascinating matchup of two teams that have already pulled off quite a string of surprises just to get this far. The North Stars stunned Buffalo four games to one in their quarterfinal series, while the Flames won a knock-down, drag-out seven-game battle over Philadelphia, finally ousting the Flyers with a 4-1 road victory at the Spectrum Sunday night.
Thus the Islanders are the only team from the top six at the end of the regular season to reach the final four in these upset-filled playoffs. Calgary was seventh, Minnesota ninth, and the Rangers 13th.
The roles are clearly drawn here in New York, where spring fever suddenly is hockey fever. The Islanders are fighting to defend their cup championship. The Rangers are fighting the underdog's good fight to show they're as good as anyone else -- especially if "anyone else" should be the Islanders. It's the suburbanites against the city boys; the expansion club against the old-line franchise; a latter-day version of the old Yankee-Dodger subway series.
Call this one the expressway series, and fasten your seat belts for a wild ride that should approach the frenzy of two years ago, when another underdog Rangers team put away the Islanders in six games to reach the cup finals.
"It will be the ultimate emotional high," says a fresh-faced Steve Baker, whose agile goaltending is a large reason the Rangers upset the fourth place Los Angeles Kings in the first round and then stopped the music for the second place St. Louis Blues to reach the semifinals.
The Islanders, of course, aren't quite so enthusiastic about all the theatrical aspects of the situation -- and in fact would just as soon be playing someone else.
"Why would we want to play them?" Asked center Butch Goring, the one wearing the turn-of-the-century helmet. "We have everything to lose, and they have everything to gain."
The Rangers, probably the highest-paid team in the sport, have played their best this season in emotion-charged situations. They began cohering with two weeks left in the regular schedule, and have been building momentum ever since.
Capt. Barry Beck, the imposing defenseman who is developing into a leader both during play and in the locker room, offers an oddly intriguing logic in behalf of the Rangers' chances.
"Disciplined hockey is the difference, and that's what we didn't play all year," he said. "Because we didn't, I think we'll stick with it through the playoffs. At this stage the game is 90 percent mental, and we're hungry and ready. People are starting to expect us to win now, and we like that."
Adds Baker, who had never performed in a playoff game until this year," "A lot of guys on this team feel they have things to prove. They're turning on the jets and forcing mistakes in the other end. That's how we scored so many goals in the quarterfinals against Mike Liut, who was the hottest goaltender in the league.
"The Islanders are capable of scoring at random, and they'll put more pressure on me. I'll just have to concentrate on stopping those biscuits. I may be a question mark in many minds, but not in my own. I've always relished a challenge, and the playoffs are the opportunity I've been looking for all my life."
By virtue of their first place regular season finish, the Islanders earned a somewhat easier path to the semis, though after knocking off Toronto in the first round they did have to stave off an upset-minded Edmonton team in the quarterfinals. The Oilers, who already had pulled one shocker by eliminating Montreal in three straight, extended the Islanders to six games before finally submitting.
That set up the rematch of the 1979 semifinal, when the Rangers won out primarily by shutting down the Islanders' big scorers, Mike Bossy and Bryan Trottier.
Says Trottier today, "sure, that will be on our minds, but Boss and I arae smarter now. We've been hearing all this talk about how eager the Rangers are to play us, but it doesn't make any difference to us who we play. Our success depends on what we do, not what they do."
the Flames, who never won a playoff series during their eight years in Atlanta, celebrated their first season in Calgary by sweeping Chicago in three straight games in the opening round, then kept it up to stun the Flyers. Meanwhile Minnesota was winning in even more decisive fashion, sweeping a strong Boston team 3-0 and roaring past Buffalo to earn a welcome four days of rest before the semifinals.
Steve Payne, a husky left wing who was not among the top 20 scorers for the regular season, has 10 goals and six assists for the North Stars in their eight playoff games. If that's unexpected, so is nearly everything else about these unpredictable playoffs.