Bob Froese, the Philadelphia goaltender with the National Hockey League's best record, was shocked tonight when he was yanked 12 minutes into the first period after a goal by Jim Wiemer had given the Rangers a 1-0 lead.
Froese returned 2 1/2 minutes later, however, and turned in a sensational performance to carry the outplayed Flyers to a 3-2 victory that prevented the Rangers from clinching a playoff berth.
Tim Kerr scored the tying and winning goals to reach a career high of 56 as the Flyers moved two points ahead of Washington in the fight for the Patrick Division title. The Capitals, who have three games remaining to the Flyers' two, can tie things once more by defeating Hartford Thursday at Capital Centre.
Washington fans need not look at the replay of Kerr's winning goal midway through the third period. They have seen it before, as recently as 10 days ago at Capital Centre.
Just as he did then, Brian Propp started to circle the opposing net, stopped and sent a backhanded pass to Kerr near the left post. With defenseman Ron Greschner spinning in confusion, Kerr was able to jam the puck past goaltender John Vanbiesbrouck.
"We've tried that three or four times this year," Propp said. "We work on it in practice. It makes it tough on the goaltender, because he has to go to the other side, and it leaves a blind spot."
"Brian made a great play," Kerr said. "He drew Greschner behind, then threw it back. I think it hit Greschner's stick, but it still got to me. We've done that a few times this year and I look for Brian to do it."
That power-play goal, with the Rangers' Raimo Helminen off for holding, was the only score of the third period, as Froese handled 18 shots in what Coach Mike Keenan called "his finest performances of the year."
The Rangers had an overall 47-30 advantage in shots, but Froese stopped only 41. Chico Resch made four saves during his brief turn in the net.
"I was shook up a bit, because I'd at least like to get by the first inning," cracked Froese, who has been relieved three times in the last five games. "But he Keenan told me what he was doing when I got to the bench and I could understand it. Actually, it was Chico who was on the spot."
"I just wanted to break the momentum of the Rangers at that time," Keenan said. "They were coming at us pretty good and I tried to stall a bit. I didn't want to use a timeout that early. But it didn't work too well, because they got some good shots at Chico.
"It was a big game for Bob Froese. He played an outstanding game for us and at times he kept us in the game. The Rangers were at home and rested tonight and we had a tough game last night against the Islanders, so we needed that kind of effort in the net."
The Rangers have lost 18 of 19 to the Flyers, counting playoffs, and they had trouble accepting this one, even though they maintained their three-point hold on fourth place when Pittsburgh was crushed by the Islanders.
"It sort of bugs us that we play that well and end up losing," said Greschner, whose 20th goal gave New York a 2-1 lead in the second period. "There's no good feeling when you lose. We have to get some momentum going into the playoffs."
Kerr, who has been restricted to power-play duty in some contests, had no complaints about ice time tonight. He was double-shifted and it was while skating with fourth-liners Lindsay Carson and Dave Brown that he created a 2-2 tie late in the second period. Carson fed the puck out of the right-wing corner to Kerr, who slid it between Vanbiesbrouck's legs from the slot.
"I read today how Teddy Rangers Coach Ted Sator had some method of stopping me," Kerr said. "It made me feel good to go out and get a couple against him.
"It's been a long year, 80 games, and now it's time to get excited. We had a lot of success last year and we want to see that again. The intensity level sure has gone up the last couple of weeks."
Kerr scored 54 goals each of the last two seasons and, asked about topping that figure, he said: "It's good to get over 54, but that's a pretty good figure, too. I've been fortunate to have three seasons like this."
The Rangers were not alone in feeling a bit sick after this one. Referee Kerry Fraser got too close to a pileup in front of the Philadelphia net in the third period and was whacked in the forehead by a stick. After minimal treatment, Fraser continued, but his usual smile was absent.
*Islanders 7, Penguins 2: In Pittsburgh, Mike Bossy scored his 59th and 60th goals of the season and Tomas Jonsson also scored twice to lead New York in its rout.
The loss was Pittsburgh's fourth straight.
Bossy's second goal came in the third period and was the 534th of his career, moving him past Frank Mahovlich into eighth place on the all-time list.
Jonsson put the Islanders ahead 48 seconds into the game and Bryan Trottier converted Randy Cunneyworth's giveaway for his 36th of the year at 5:03 to make it 2-0.
The Islanders led, 5-2, after two periods on goals by Bob Bourne, Bossy and Mikko Makela. John Chabot and Cunneyworth scored for the Penguins, with Cunneyworth's a shorthanded goal.
*Canadiens 6, Red Wings 3: Mats Naslund scored his 42nd goal during a three-goal second period to lead Montreal over visiting Detroit. Montreal took sole possession of second place in the Adams Division, two points ahead of Boston. The Red Wings lost their fifth straight.
*Devils 6, Nordiques 5: In East Rutherford, N.J., Mark Johnson scored three goals, including two in a four-goal third period, to rally New Jersey over Quebec.
*North Stars 7, Blackhawks 5: Linemates Dennis Maruk and Kent Nilsson scored two goals each, enabling visiting Minnesota to pull within one point of Chicago in the Norris Division. Minnesota took a 3-0 lead in the first 15 minutes and never trailed.
*Jets 4, Kings 4: In Inglewood, Calif., Dale Hawerchuk scored with 55 seconds left in regulation to give Winnipeg a tie and eliminate Los Angeles from a chance at a playoff berth.