Potvin closing in on Bobby Orr's scoring records for defensemen

Move over, Bobby Orr. Make room in the record books for Denis (the menacing) Potvin. Potvin, the durable captain of the New York Islanders, is tied with Orr for most career points by a defenseman, with 915. He could pass him tonight when the Islanders take on the archrival New York Rangers in Madison Square Garden.

Potvin (pronounced ``Pot-van'') is due. Make that overdue. He's been held without a point for his last four games, despite frequent good opportunities.

``It's become a nuisance that seems to be wearing on a lot of our guys,'' Potvin said of the elusive point after St. Louis goalie Greg Millen stymied him last weekend. And although the Islanders scored freely in a 7-3 victory over Buffalo Tuesday night, Denis again came up empty.

``I'm straining and my teammates are trying too hard to help,'' he says. ``It's stretching out too long to be as much fun as it should be.''

The point will come sooner or later, of course, and Potvin should also surmount Orr's record for goals (270) this season, having already beaten Bobby's assist record of 645.

It must be mentioned in Orr's behalf that he played more than 200 fewer games than Potvin. But then Denis is more defense minded than Bobby was, and has held up much better physically. At age 32 he is in his 13th season with the Islanders. Orr also logged 13 seasons, but barely played the last two because of injuries.

``We're hard to compare because our styles are so different,'' says Potvin. ``He skated better than I do and was a more dangerous scoring threat. I feel I'm a better playmaker when it comes to springing my forwards loose, and I hit better.''

Oh, does he hit. Running into Potvin, or being run into by the familiar No. 5, provides more of a jolt than colliding with the unforgiving boards. At 6 feet, 205 pounds, he's built like the Nassau Coliseum and is about as hard to knock down.

For all the modern emphasis on finesse popularized by the Edmonton Oilers and their video-game offense, hockey is still a contact sport. Nobody appreciates this more than Potvin and the people he body-checks with such seismic intensity.

``The thing Denis always has done best is hit,'' says his brother Jean, a former Islander who retired to the safer confines of the broadcasting booth. ``I know from growing up with him. When he hits you, you feel it. He intimidates people.''

Says the rock-jawed Denis, with a ready smile that belies his menace, ``I like to unload a good, clean check to make the guys on the other team keep their heads up. They're not as eager to penetrate your defense the next time.''

Orr agrees that Potvin is a stronger physical presence than he ever was: ``You don't see many players messing with Denis or going too near him,'' Bobby points out. ``He's hit almost everyone in his time.''

Potvin played football before he took up hockey -- mainly because he relished the body contact -- and dabbled in karate as a teen-ager. He's tougher than Rocky and Rambo rolled into one.

``A lot of players fear Denis and give him extra room,'' says Islander coach Al Arbour, a former tough defensemen himself. ``Bobby had tremendous speed and puck-handling ability. He could throw you by shifting gears. But Denis can pass the puck as well as anyone. He keys our power play. He's a wonderful all-around defensemen. His slap shot and wrist shot are smokers.''

Potvin has been compared to Orr since his days in junior hockey, when he broke all Bobby's records. He felt extra pressure from hearing Orr's name held up to him so often, but was stimulated by it.

Denis was the National Hockey League's first draft choice at age 19, then its Rookie of the Year, and he became the cornerstone of an expansion franchise that went from nowhere to four straight Stanley Cups. Along the way he won the Norris Trophy as the league's best defensemen three times, stopping Orr's reign at eight, and made the first All Star team five times.

And he has rarely missed a game. ``My biggest asset has been my ability to play so steadily,'' he said. ``If Orr had been able to play as much as I have, he'd have set records that would be out of reach. I have always admired him. When I was a junior he gave me the best advice I could have got, which was to play my own game and ignore the comparisons to him. He is a classy person.''

So is Potvin, who has been vastly more cooperative with the press and his public than the shy Orr ever was, and who is interested in everything from modern art to Manhattan's antiquated subway system. Now if he can finally score The Point, as it's come to be called, he'll enjoy a merry, unmenaced holiday season.

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