To the manic followers of the New York Rangers, the current Stanley Cup semifinals playoff series with the Islanders is a crusade. It is not easy to wait 40 years without a Stanley Cup and then see a expansion club from the suburbs conquer the hockey world in its eighth season, as the Islanders did last year.
For the Islanders, however, the expressway series is just another step on what seems an inevitable path toward a repeat performance. Blessed with a favorable schedule by their first-place status and an uncommon number of upsets, the Islanders have beaten the NHL's 16th- and 14th-best teams, are currently facing No. 13 in the Rangers and, if No. 9 Minnesota maintains its fast start against Calgary in the other semifinal, could win the Cup without facing any of the top eight.
In winning Tuesday's opening game here, 5-2, the Islanders showed minimal emotion, merely swarming over the Rangers in the forechecking fashion that has characterized their rise to prominence, then waiting for the breaks to build their margin on the scoreboard.
The Islanders' fans, once so belligerent a canvas protector had to be constructed over the visitors' access route to the ice to protect the players from debris, have mellowed with victory. Tuesday, they booed Ranger Barry Beck whenever he touched the puck, but it was almost a teasing sound without malice, and merriment accompanied a third-period rendition of the Sasson jeans commercial, the one that helped make Ron Duguay a household sex symbol.
Duguay might as well have worn jeans Tuesday, to make it simpler for the Islanders' Butch Goring to pick his pocket. Goring forechecked the freewheeling Ranger center into frustrated helplessness. At one point in the third period, with each team skating a man short, Duguay tested various escape routes from the Ranger end, only to be cut in each maneuver by Goring.
The Rangers, limited to 20 shots, rarely manaed to free themselves from the clinging Islanders. Fearful of taking penalties that would set up the league's best power play, they refrained from the hitting that took the backbone out of the St. Louis Blues in the quarterfinals.
In this season of unsurpassed penalty figures, Goring was a rarity, a man who played 78 games without ever visiting the penalty box. In a career that encompasses 826 games, he has served a total of 68 minutes.
"I just try to get all over everybody and get them to make mistakes," Goring said. It's hard work, because I'm not big enough to run all over people. That's why it's nice to be recognized."
It is hard work, like any other job, and the fact that the other jerseys are dark blue with "RANGERS" stitched diagonally across them does not make that job any more emotional -- no harder, no easier.