While the Islanders and Rangers were qualifying Friday nite for that New York hate affair in the Stanley Cup semifinals, the Philadelphia Flyers were providing the principals with some needed rest and some unnecessary opportunity for media hype.
The Flyers, who pulled out a 3-2 decision in the difficult atmosphere of Calgary's Stampede Corral, meet the Flames here Sunday night to determine who will face Minnesota in a semifinal series guaranteed to take second place in most areas of hockey interest.
A duel between the National Hockey League's No. 1 and No. 13 teams would figure to be a mismatch, and some traditionalists are still complaining that a 13-th place team is in the playoffs at all. But few would dare to downgrade the Rangers after the way they have disposed of fourth-place Los Angeles and second-place St. Louis.
"The Rangers have a chance to beat the Islanders," said the Blues' Larry Patey, after New York's 7-4 victory Friday had eliminated St. Louis in six games. "They forecheck well and their defense is strong. Barry Beck was a dead-end street for us. I don't see how they finish so low during the season."
It is difficult to imagine how the Rangers, with so much talent, stumbled to the extent that they finished six games under .500 and clinched a playoff berth only two days before season's end. Injuries were a factor, as the Rangers were hit harder than anyone else in the NHL, including Washington. The coaching change, as General Manager Craig Patrick took over from Fred Shero, was an upsetting factor, too. But the primary problem seems to have been attitude, a factor confirmed by Beck, the team captain, leader and defensive giant.
"We were all going different ways during the season," Beck said. "But late in the year, we worked out our problems off the ice and now we're working together on it. You have to think you can do it, you have to be positive.
"We've been looking forward to the Islanders. We were looking for them in the first round. It's going to be very tough, because they've got a great hockey team. But we think we can beat them. That's the key."
Beck was in Colorado two years ago when the Rangers upset the heavily favored Islanders in a six-game semifinal but he is aware of how much this upcoming series will mean.
"I know what this rivalry is all about," Beck said. "The intensity was there during the season, although I guess in the playoffs there will be even more. It will be a very, very emotional series, with a lot of fast skating and hard body checks.
"They've got too many good hockey players to key on one or two. We have to take care of our end of the ice and the other end will take care of itself. We have to stay away from penalties, too. Their power play is too good for that."
Beck came to New York in exchange for five players on Nov. 2, 1979, and Ranger fans expected him to lead the Rangers to the Cup -- immediately. It did not happen, Beck had problems adjusting to New York, and the Rangers' season ended in disappointment, as they were thrashed by Philadelphia in a five-game quarterfinal. There was a loud outcry that the Rangers had given away too much for one overrated player.
Now Ranger fans would be pressed if asked to name those five players who went west. Instead, they wait for Beck to lead them in cheers as the national anthem grinds down. If there is a more enthusiastic crowd in hockey, it must be in Bratislava, because the Rangers' followers create a deafening uproar from the team's appearance to the first stoppage of play, and then there is only a slight lessening in volume. A solid check by Beck, or the dumping of the puck by an opponent anxious to avoid Beck, earn a response usually reserved for goals or fights.
"I think Barry is playing better than any defenseman in the league," Patrick said. "The forwards are playing well, too, and the goaltending has been solid. "It's a team effort, but Barry has been a big part of it.
"At the beginning of the year, I thought we could have finished in the top eight, but there were a lot of changes, and a lot of disrupting factors. The thing that changed our season around was, with 10 games to go, the players looked at the standings and at our remaining schedule, which was very difficult, and they said, 'Hey, we've got to start playing playoff hockey or we're not even going to make the playoffs.' The last 10 games we played playoff hockey, excellent hockey, and we've just carried on."
In their last 20 games, including playoffs, the Rangers are 13-5-2. Over a similar stretch, the Islanders are 14-3-3. So there is no excess of Madison Avenue influence when one claims that this hottest of hockey rivalries matches two of hockey's hottest teams.