Seven weeks ago, 20-year-old Ken Linseman was toiling for Maine in the American Hockey League. Tonight he was the hero of America's nuttiest hockey fans.

Linseman's unassisted goal, after 44 seconds of sudden death overtime, gave the Philadelphia Flyers a 3-2 victory over the New York Rangers in the opener of their best-of-seven Stanley Cup quarterfinal.

It was a great play that concluded this first chapter of what promises to be a great series. Linseman picked up the puck at the red line, a step ahead of Phil Esposito, after New York's Carol Vadnais had dumped it to center ice. He cut over the Rangers blue before faking Vadnais, skating from right to left and drilling the puck past Ranger goalie John Davidson.

"They were trying to feed Phil Esposito up the middle, they'd been doing it all night," Linseman said, "I was kind of hanging back and I picked it up and cut in. They were standing up, sort of, at the blue line and I faked and everyone went with Billy Barber. So I held the puck until I saw a hole and shot and I was lucky that it went in."

Linseman also was a key figure in Barber's tying goal with 4:58 left in regulation. He outfought Vadnais for the puck in the corner at Davidson's right and shoveled it out to Barber, whose ninth shot of the game went underneath the Ranger goalie.

Davidson was so disgusted he threw the puck out to center ice. He had blocked 12 shots earlier that period, including some remarkable saves on Linseman, Bobby Clarke, Barber and Bob Dailey. Davidson had to be good, because the Rangers went without a shot for 16 minutes as the Flyers dominated play.

It had not started that way. The Rangers, under orders to test Flyer goalie Robbie Moore early, grabbed a 2-0 lead in the first 10 minutes and at one point had an 11-2 edge in shots.

The Flyers, warned to avoid cheap penalties because of the Rangers' potent power play, took their first foolish foul in the first minute and were fortunate to yield only one extra-man score, as they were shorthanded five times in the first 20 minutes.

Don Maloney deflected a Vadnais slap shot to put the Rangers in front and Esposito's 53rd Stanley Cup goal followed, on a power-play deflection of a Don Maloney setup.

The Rangers have been ahead of Philadelphia often this season, but a four-goal lead and two three-goal advantages resulted in nothing more than ties, so the Flyers were undaunted by a mere two-goal deficit.

They began to forecheck in the style that led them to two Stanley Cups and the Rangers eventually wilted. Bob Kelly deflected a Tom Gorence shot past Davidson on a Flyer power play before the first period ended and Barber eventually tied it, although there was understandable wonder whether Davidson and his friendly goal posts might make the lead stand up.

"When it was 2-0 it was scary, like Vancouver," Linseman said. "But at least we didn't get rattled like we did against Vancouver and try to do everything individually. We kep our composure, kept up the pressure and waited for our chances.

"We got on top of their defensemen. We were trying to tire them out so they'd just fire the puck off the boards instead of carrying it."

The strategy worked, as the Ranger's smooth plays of the first 13 minutes turned ragged and the New Yorkers mounted little in the way of scoring threats thereafter.

Linseman got an edge two years ago by passing up his final junior season to join Birmingham of the World Hockey Association. He scored 38 goals in the WHA and the Flyers drafted him in the first round last June. The NHL proved more difficult, however, and he had only five goals in limited regular-season action. The one tonight made up for a lot of bus rides around the AHL.