The Hartford Whalers play host to the National Hockey League All-Star game tonight, but would much prefer that it were the opening round of the playoffs. The Whalers have been conspicuous victims in the league's division-minded playoff format. The top four teams in each of the four divisions make the playoffs, leaving only five clubs on the sideline.
Last season the Whalers would have made it in either the Norris or the Patrick Division. Unfortunately they were competing in the better-balanced Adams Division, where they ended up fifth and out.
Hartford has lobbied for a more equitable system, such as pro football's ``wild card'' method, but so far without success. This year it may not matter.
The Whalers, 26-24-1, are tied with Buffalo for fourth and fifth places in the fierce Adams race. Division-leading Montreal has 65 points; Quebec, 60; Boston, 59; and Buffalo and Hartford, 53 apiece.
``We made no secret of the fact we're in business to finish ahead of Boston, '' says Emile Francis, Hartford president and general manager. ``We've developed a strong regional rivalry with the Bruins, and we're going after them with everything we have.''
Everything does not include, for a few more weeks, injured all-star Ron Francis, the big center (who is no relation to Emile). It does take into acount new talent like goaltender Mike Liut, center Doug Jarvis, and defenseman Dave Babych -- all brought in by a busy front office.
Liut is an experienced veteran and a leader. Jarvis is perhaps the best face-off man in the game and has fortified the penalty-killing. And Babych, given up by Winnipeg in a much-second-guessed trade early this season, has been the solution to the Whalers' defensive problems.
``He's capable of being the best there is,'' says coach Jack Evans. ``He's such a threat to score from the outside that our other people in the attacking zone don't get covered as closely. He moves the puck up to the forwards so quickly, they're all the more effective.''
One of those forwards now is Dave's brother Wayne, just procured from Quebec. Dave and Wayne, married to twin sisters, have never played together as professionals.
Quebec coach Michel Bergeron, who recently won his 200th NHL game, says Hartford was a division contender the day Dave arrived. ``He's the large, mobile defenseman who was missing.''
Of the division race, Bergeron says: ``It's crazy and will stay that way. It gets tighter and tighter. Our defense is better than people give us credit for, and we should keep the pressure on Montreal.''
Peter Stastny and Michel Goulet furnish plenty of firepower for Quebec.
Bergeron's goalie, the pleasant surprise Clint Malarchuk, adds: ``There's no room to breathe. Every game's a pressure game.'' At the All-Star break, all five teams were at .500 or better. The team with the worst record would be second in two of the three other divisions.
That is Buffalo, where general manager Scotty Bowman -- the winningest NHL coach -- has fired Jim Schoenfeld and gone back behind the bench himself. Gil Perreault, age 35, is still the team's main offensive threat but may be losing a step and is considering retirement.
Boston's new coach, Butch Goring, the most-improved dresser in the league, is playing young people like Kraig Nienhuis and revitalizing an old franchise. ``I've used rookies on the power play,'' says Goring, ``and in the long run it'll help us.''
The Bruins have been much more successful at home than on the road, and they face a two-week trip this month that could be pivotal to their season.
If the Bruins sport a fresh look, the Canadians are almost unrecognizable. The one-time Flying Frenchmen are using only eight players from Quebec.
Montreal's two most dangerous forwards -- Mats Naslund and Kjell Dahlin -- grew up on the same street in Sweden. Kjell may become rookie of the year, the accuracy he learned as an antiaircraft gunner in the Swedish military having carried over to his quick wrist shots.
Add half a dozen Americans and a promising Czech and you have a multi-lingual Canadian team that's a new kind of threat. Larry Robinson directs the league's best power play. If the goal tending lasts, Montreal could stay on top.
Meanwhile, don't forget Hartford, the team with the most favorable remaining schedule. ``Maybe,'' says Emile Francis, ``this playoff setup I don't like has helped by forcing us to accelerate our improvement. You lose a few games in this division and you're gone.''