Uniondale, N.Y. — What's the most exciting play in sports? I'll take the end-to-end scoring play: the 100-yard kickoff return in football, the court-long dribble in basketball, the rink-length rush in hockey.
It's as close to athletic ecstasy as an individual can come in a team sport. It builds momentum as it develops, catches up the crowd in an emotional surge, and culminates in a dramatic touchdown, basket, or goal.
By this criterion, the highlight of the Stanley Cup hockey playoffs so far has to be Bob Bourne's heroic foray around and through the entire New York Ranger team in the fifth game of the quarterfinals. His goal gave the New York Islanders command of the contest, which they went on to win 7-2 en route to taking the best-of-seven series, four games to two.
Bourne has been a key force, in fact, throughout the Islanders' playoff surge , which has now carried them to a 3-1 lead over Boston in the semifinals (Wayne Gretzky and the Edmonton Oilers swept the Chicago Black Hawks 4-0 in the other semifinal series.)
New York is now just one game away from a berth in the finals and an opportunity for its fourth consecutive Stanley Cup as the series returns to Boston for Game No. 5 tonight. Despite this lead, however, the Islanders are well aware that they still have a battle on their hands against the team that led the National Hockey League's 1982-83 regular season standings.
''It feels more like the finals than the semifinals,'' says Bourne, a playoff veteran who usually does his best during the post-season. ''These are probably the two hardest-working, toughest-checking teams in the league - it's almost like playing against yourself, we're so much alike.''
As physical as Islander-Bruin games can be, the big plays often are made by the speedy skaters like Bourne; his teammate Mike Bossy, who scored three goals Tuesday night in New York's 8-3 fourth game victory; or the Bruins' Rick Middleton.
Each of these stars is spectacular in his own way, of course, and Bourne's forte is sheer speed. The 6 ft. 3 in., 200-pound forward ''can really wheel, ''as they say in the locker room, and in fact may be the fastest straigtaway skater in the entire league.
On that memorable rush that destroyed the Rangers, Bourne picked up the puck behind his own net; headed up through the right face-off circle; swerved to his left as he crossed the center red line; made quick moves both left and then right gliding into the Rangers' zone; slipped the puck through one Ranger defenseman's legs; outraced the other defensemen, and whipped an 18-foot shot into the far corner of the net.
''I haven't done anything like that since I was a kid,'' Bourne said. ''I don't think I've ever even attempted it in this league. You do something like that once in a career, or at least I do, in the playoffs. I could never forget it.''
Bourne had videotaped the game on his television set and went home that night to watch the play. He watched it a dozen times.
''I got excited all over again every time I saw it,'' he says. ''I looked at where the players were on the ice. I looked at the fans' reactions. I'll save that tape for the rest of my life.''
An all-purpose forward, Bourne plays center or wing and is one of the NHL's best penalty-killers (he holds the team record for short-handed goals with seven).
He has played on all sorts of line combinations, including left wing alongside superstars Brian Trottier and Bossy, but in these playoffs has teamed with the rugged Sutter Brothers, Brent and Duane. The firm of Sutter, Sutter, and Bourne has done a flourishing business and diverted attention from Trottier and Bossy, enabling them to operate more freely.
''I've never played with two guys as intense as the Sutters,'' says Bourne. ''They come in the locker room and talk hockey to you, they go out to supper and talk hockey to you, you get up in the morning and they talk hockey to you. They've got so many plays they want to make, my head's spinning.''
Coach Al Arbour juggled the lines like tennis balls during the regular season in an attempt to keep the Islanders' budding dynasty from falling apart due to lack of interest.
''Al's biggest job is to keep us working after three straight championships, '' says Bourne.''Playing an 80-game regular season just to qualify 16 out of 21 teams for the playoffs is ludicrous. We have tests that show you're at your physical peak in January and February. You have to go a long way to find a player in this league who agrees with the playoff system.
''We didn't have a good regular season, and that worried me, but we're playing better now than we did all year. I wasn't happy with all the line shifting, but Al went to set lines when the time came, and everyone's responding.''