For most of those who pursue the bouncing puck, ice hockey is a winter sport. For Bob Nystrom, though, it is a game to be savored in springtime.

Nystrom is best remembered for the overtime goal against Philadelphia on May 24, 1980, that brought the New York Islanders that Stanley Cup. But that was only one of three game-winners for Nystrom in the 1980 playoffs; three weeks earlier, in a semifinal at Buffalo, he had decided the Islanders' longest game ever, at 1:20 of the second extra period.

In all, Nystrom has scored four overtime goals in the playoffs, a figure topped only by Rocket Richard's six. Richard, of course, was one of hockey's all-time greats; Nystrom is a player of limited talent, whose junior coach in Calgary, Scotty Munro, was convinced he never would reach the NHL.

What makes Nystrom so valuable are his muscular body, which he willingly uses in corners and confrontations, and the ability to score goals when it means most, in the playoffs. What makes Nystrom so puzzling is his inability to produce at the same rate during the regular season.

During the 1980 playoffs, he recorded nine goals in 20 games. During the past regular season, he managed only 14 in 79 games. Nystrom's scoring touch is largely reserved for the emotional, pressure-packed contests.

Saturday night in the tumult of Madison Square Garden Nystrom performed in typical spring finery, scoring a goal and setting up two others as the Islanders moved within one game of a semifinal sweep of the Rangers. It brought up once again the inevitable question: Why so hot in spring, cold in winter?

"I'm definitely more psyched during the playoffs," Nystrom said. "I look forward to the games and the practices. I have no outside interests during the playoffs. Hockey is it for five or six weeks, whatever. Maybe I shouldn't have outside interests during the season, but you're talking about six months and I doubt anyone could be that dedicated.

"I try to play the same kind of game in the regular season, but the games themselves are different. My contributions that are so important in the playoffs, the little hits that throw them off stride, I don't think anybody even notices them until you get a series like this where everything you do comes under a magnifying glass.

"I play my game, wait for the breaks, do the best I can. The playoffs are all for the team. I think I'm important to the team. Even if it means fighting the toughest guy -- somebody I'm afraid of -- I'll do it for the team. That's one reason I think I do good in the playoffs."

In the first two games of this series, Nystrom, although a right-hand shot, was at left wing in the absence of Bob Bourne, who was suffering from a groin pull. Saturday he was back in his normal right wing spot, with Bourne and Wayne Merrick, and each of them produced a goal, while the Rangers were worrying about the Islanders' big line of Clark Gillies, Bryan Trottier and Mike Bossy.

The Islanders can finish off the series with a victory Tuesday night at the Garden, and gain some time to heal their wounds while Minnesota and Calgary determine the other finalist, the North Stars now leading, 2-1, and hosting Game 4 on Tuesday.

Original Islander Nystrom, 28, has played more games in an Islander uniform, 719, than anyone else. Yet he will always be remembered for one, that big, big one of last spring, the one he has replayed so often on his videotape machine at home.

I'll appreciate that moment for the rest of my life," Nystrom said. "And no matter what else I've done or what else I do, that's what I'll probably be remembered best for. I mean, how many players get the chance to do something like that?

"I try not to live in the past, but you try to remember the good things. I can still feel it all when I watch that tape. It's nice. But I've got to put it behind me and get on with other things."

An overtime winner on Tuesday, maybe.