The New York Islanders' big line of Mike Bossy, Bryan Trottier and Clark Gillies scored 151 goals during the regular NHL season. In tonight's playoff game, that trio did not manage a shot, much less a goal.
The New York Rangers, skating and checking like Stanley Cup champions, renewed their fanatic backers' hopes of such a prize by dominating the Islanders, 3-1, and building a 2-1 lead in the best-of-seven semifinal series. Game 4 will be played Thursday night in Madison Square Garden.
The Rangers' relentless forechecking on bad Garden ice forced Islander mistakes that enabled Phil Esposito to shatter a 1-1 tie in the second period and Steve Vickers to score the clincher in the third.
"We had lots of good chances, but we couldn't get the handle around the net," Islanders Coach Al Arbour said.
"We have to sustain it, not just play in spurts. And our big line has to get going. They're not scoring much, but nobody stopped them before and I'm sure they'll get going."
The Rangers did not attempt to assign any one line to the Islander big three, although Coach Fred Shero had the last chance each time. Instead, the Rangers used four lines in short shifts and each group had one objective: hit the puck carrier.
"We're not really allowing them to start play and get things organized," Esposito said.
Besides the Rangers' checking, an important factor in the Islander importance was that ice. Freshly made following an afternoon circus performance, it was horrible.
"Everybody in the series has been interfering, bumping and holding," said Walt Tkaczuk, a Ranger penalty killer who has been a key factor in the Islander power play, NHL's No. 1 during regular season, becoming a 0-for-13 flop in this series.
"You can't do much because of it and especilly on this ice. The ice was terrible," Tkaczuk elaborated. "On a power play, you couldn't handle the puck and you couldn't pass or make a nice play. We play on it so often, maybe it gives us an advantage."
By using four lines and going with only five defensemen, Shero gave Lucien DeBlois a chance to play. And DeBlois checked just as hard and just as effectively as every other Ranger in what was a truly remarkable exhibition of physical, generally clean hockey. If an Islander touched the puck, he could be sure he would be hit.
"We've been trying to get our people to realize they can do that sort of thing," said the Ranger assistant coach, Mike Nykoluk. "The first man should have no fear. If he has a chance to hit the man with the puck, he should go. They've got so much confidence now, it's rubbing off on everybody.
"Our strategy was just to check the man with the puck, make sure not to go for the fake. We changed quick and kept fresh people on the ice."
Bobby Sheehan sent the Rangers ahead early in the second period, rebounding a shot from the point by Mike McEwen. The goal came during a six-minute stretch in which the Rangers had a 10-0 shooting advantage.
Bob Bourne pulled the Islanders even when Ranger defenseman Mario Marois could not clear the puck from between his skates. Instead of falling on it, he kept whacking away until Bourne stole it and beat John Davidson with a backhander to the glove side.
Islander Bob Nystrom had similar problems at the other end and Ranger Don Maloney pried the disc away. He fed Don Murdoch, whose half-speed shot was deflected into the net by Esposito.
It was the 37-year-old Esposito's 56th Stanley Cup goal and he gave full credit for this remarkable season-42 goals in the regular campaign and six in the playoffs-to a 90-year-old great aunt back in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, who had removed the evil eye that plagued him in recent years.
"She had me wear three different T-shirts, because she said I had it real bad," Esposito said. "With me so superstitious, I'll try anything. That's why I've got these horns (quite a variety) over my locker, to ward off evil spirits."
Vickers finished the scoring, after the Islanders had flubbed three chances in two minutes, by stealing a Stefan Persson pass. Gaolie Chico Resch came out to the hash marks between the faceoff circles, but Vickers got around him. Losing control with the empty net in sight, Vickers skated around and jammed the puck in from the other side.