Hot goaltender lifts surprising Rangers into Stanley Cup semis

John Vanbiesbrouck. The name, second longest in New York Ranger history, tickles the tongue impressively and sounds as though it should have ``III'' behind it. Inheritor of a British treasure house? Triple agent in a Robert Ludlum novel? Eight-goal polo star?

Vanbiesbrouck hails from Detroit, is an engagingly forthright 22-year-old, and specializes in keeping goals out rather than putting them in.

He is the single most salient reason the wake-us-later New York Rangers, who finished 14th during the National Hockey League regular season, have reached the semifinals of the Stanley Cup playoffs.

Goaltender Vanbiesbrouck and New York have climbed this high by shocking Philadelphia and Washington, the No. 2 and No. 3 teams in the league, after making the playoffs by a scanty two points.

Now it's the Rangers vs. Montreal in a best-of-seven semifinal which began last night, while Calgary (which stunned two-time defending champion Edmonton in the quarterfinals) meets St. Louis in the other series, starting tonight.

A 72nd draft choice playing in only his second full NHL season, Vanbiesbrouck has made one critical save after another to revive yet again the old adage that a hot goaltender is the key to playoff success.

He started all 11 post-season games for New York through the quarterfinals and gained all seven wins. His goals-against average is just about three a game, and in the last two pressure-packed contests against Washington he allowed just three scores overall.

Even more compelling is his ability to muster the big save when it's needed most. He stops a breakaway with a flick of his glove, stifles a power play by kicking out a rebound, stymies a screaming slap shot by forcing his 5- ft. 7-in., 165-lb. body through a muscular screen.

``He has exceptional concentration,'' says Bill Chadwick, the Hall of Fame referee who works for the Ranger organization and has been around the NHL for nearly 50 years. ``In that respect he reminds me of great ones like Jacques Plante and Terry Sawchuk. His concentration is complete. I know him well, and the other night when he passed right by me on his way to the ice, he didn't even see me. His eyes were already on the puck.''

Vanbiesbrouck, called Beezers by his teammates, also has marvelous hands and the facility for making a quick recovery when he's in trouble. He can repel a blooping shot and a subsequent bullet with equal aplomb. He moves the puck well enough to hold the Ranger season record for assists by a goalie (5). He likes to bank passes off the boards to his wingers at the blue line and beyond, sometimes too ambitiously. His penchant for passing the puck with abandon has been called his weakness.

``I do it with confidence,'' he responds with typical candor. ``I'd rather have their defense handling the puck than their forward.

His confidence in the Rangers' chances of capturing their first Stanley Cup since 1940 sounds just as real.

``I think destiny is going to take this team through,'' he says. ``I wouldn't have bet on us in January, but I would now. We're beating teams that are superior man for man, but not on a 20-man basis. We've won from behind and from in front. We're playing disciplined, old-fashioned hockey. We've been without Barry Beck, Tom Laidlaw, and Ron Greschner -- the heart of our defense -- and our play is so solid and together you barely notice it.''

What you do notice is Vanbiesbrouck's goaltending, so acrobatic it could play in the circus that's sharing Madison Square Garden with the Rangers this spring. He has been the difference in the playoffs.

``I trace my breakthrough to playing for Team USA in the world championships in Czechoslovakia last spring,'' he says. ``I beat three of the best teams in the world -- the Swedes, Czechs, and Canadians -- and developed a lot of faith in myself. That's how I was able to get a fast start this season.''

As for that name, the 13-letter last one is actually the longest in Ranger history, but if you count both first and last names the ``champion'' is Sheldon Kannegiesser, a defenseman who played in the early '70s, while Vanbiesbrouck is tied with four others for runner-up honors.

As for his ability to lift a team, he co-led NHL goalies in regular season victories with 31, despite backstopping a club that lost more games than it won. That's almost more impressive than Wayne Gretzky's scoring feats.

Or than being the inheritor of a British treasure house, a triple agent in a Ludlum novel, or an eight-goal polo star.

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