Specialization slides its way into big-time hockey, too

Football isn't the only sport that can attract attention with its specialty teams. Hockey has them, too, and they've become one of the keys to this year's Stanley Cup playoffs.

The defending champion New York Islanders, who swept the archrival New York Rangers 4-0 in their semifinal "expressway series," consider their penalty-killing and power-play units their edge over the opposition.

Coach Al Arbour has taken the concept of specialty teams and elevated it to an art form. Whenever the Islanders are a man up or a man down, he goes with his best and insists that they make an extra effort.

The results are at least sensational.

In 13 playoff games so far, the Islanders have already scored 26 power-play goals (breaking their own record of 25 set last year) and have tallied seven more times when they were a man down (tying their own mark, also set a year ago).

"There's nothing like a short-handed goal to turn a game around," Arbour says. "And with a power play scoring 40 percent of the time or more, the other teams can't afford to take many penalties."

Versatile Islander center Butch Goring believes specialty teams decide more games than any other phase of hockey.

"We got two short-handed goals against Toronto in the first round, we got two against Edmonton, and we scored three more against the Rangers," he points out. "Those goals have pretty much been the story."

Goring's own goal while his team was short-handed in Game 2 seemed to knock the wind out of the Rangers, and the 5 ft., 9 in. center did his thing again in Game 4 Tuesday night at Madison Square Garden. With the Rangers on the power play and desperately trying to climb back from a 3-0 deficit, Goring broke away and lifted a backhander into the net to pretty much wrap up the clinching 5-2 victory.

The "specialty teams" are also playing a big role in the other semifinal, which Minnesota now leads 3-1, with a chance to close it out in Game 5 at Calgary tonight.

In Game 1, Minnesota's penalty killers not only protected a precarious 2-1 lead on the road during a third-period Flames power play -- they scored two short-handed goals in the space of 24 seconds to nail down a 4-1 victory.

In Minnesota's 4-2 victory in Game 3 the North Stars' power play did the key scoring, coming up with two goals in four tries, while the penalty killers thwarted Calgary all five times that the Flames had the extra man.

And on Tuesday night, a short-handed goal by Kevin Maxwell snuffed out any lingering third-period comeback hopes the Flames might have had in Game 4 as the North Stars held on for a 7-4 decision to reach the brink of their first appearance in the final.

While the top priority in short-handed situations must be thwarting the opposition, good penalty killing units are always alert for their own opportunities. The Boston Bruins of the early 1970s, with Bobby Orr roaming the ice behind Derek Sanderson and Ed Westfall, were particularly dangerous in such situations. So were the mid-'70s editions of the Philadelphia Flyers, who often used Bobby Clarke and other high-scoring forwards for the job. And certainly the nonpareil practitioners of this art in the early '80s are the Islanders.

Arbour regularly puts superior skaters and shooters like Goring and Bryan Trottier on the ice in short-handed situations. They never forget their No. 1 obligation (the Islanders led the league in penalty-killing effectiveness during the regular season, stopping some 80 percent of enemy attempts), but Al gives them the freedom to make offensive play in the center zone as long as the defense is in position behind them.

"These guys aren't pluggers, they're terrific players," he said. "They can convert the extra skating room into an advantage with their sharp anticipation and quickness. I don't want them to get trapped chasing the puck carrier in the other end, but otherwise they can use their own judgment."

In front of their goalie while killing a penalty, the Islanders play a conventional 2-2 box formation with their four skaters, but they play it more aggressively than most other teams. Rather than sag back to clog the slot area, the two forwards will charge out to harry the point men into doing something quickly with the puck.

If a point man wants to shoot, the Islander on that side will impede him. The Islanders block a good many shots this way, and occasionally convert them into breakways.

Arbour's cleverness shows in two stratagems he applies to face-offs, which are critical to short-handed play.

Trottier, his strongest face-off expert, will take every face-off in a corner , even if he has just skated a hard shift. He may come to the bench shortly thereafter, but he will take it.

And Arbour will play two centers together at all times (Trottier and Wayne Merrick or Billy Carroll, for instance), so that if one is chased by a lineman from the face-off circle, the other is available to step in and replace him.

When the situations are reversed and the Islanders go on the power play, the other team must stop the glittering lights of Trottier, Denis Potvin, and Mike Bossy, who zipped in 28 of his league-leading 68 goals skating the power play.

"It's possible to stop Bryan and it's possible to stop Mike," Potvin says. "But not to stop our power play."

Edmonton sought to create a traffic jam in front of the net where Bossy and Trottier wreak most of their havoc. So Potvin destroyed the Oilers with blasts from outside.

To get good shots, the Islanders pass the puck patiently, wisely, and precisely on the power play, waiting until the inevitable opening presents itself and then capitalizing on it. It doesn't look like a percentage move until they make it, but they favor the long diagonal path from a forward wide on one side of the rink back out to a defenseman -- preferably Potvin -- wide on the other side.

They love to use their two points, and as soon as the defense shifts to compensate, the puck is whipped inside to Bossy or Trottier, who can quickly deposit it in the net.

What's so special about these unstoppable-looking New York Islanders? Their specialty teams, principally.

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