One series does not guarantee a future Norris Trophy as the National Hockey League's best defenseman. However, Scott Stevens drew widespread attention to his considerable ability while leading the Washington Capitals past the New York Islanders in a widely publicized playoff confrontation.
Stevens' two goals and six points were double the figures of any other participant. He was plus-four, a rating matched only by teammate Craig Laughlin.
Stevens scored the biggest goal of the series in Game 2, adroitly using Islanders defenseman Randy Boyd as a screen to beat Bill Smith nine seconds after Bryan Trottier had lifted the Islanders into a 2-2 tie. In Game 3, Stevens made a back-door move on a power play to convert Greg Adams' pass for his second game-winning goal.
Stevens logged more ice time than any other defenseman, 30 minutes in Game 2 and 28 minutes in Game 3, and he was an important factor in a blanketing defensive effort that limited the Islanders to four goals in the three games. In 34 previous series, New York never had scored fewer than seven (in a two-game series in 1977).
Stevens yesterday said he was "relaxed, more than anything. I wasn't nervous and I wasn't too emotional. In other years, the fans were going crazy and I'd get too pumped up, to where I could feel things going down my back.
"It's better to have fun, be loose and forget that it's an important game. If you're tense and worried, you take a lot of energy out of yourself and you don't do smart things. It comes with experience. This is my fourth year, and I've learned a lot."
Stevens, a first-round draft pick in 1982, was named to the all-rookie team in 1983. He showed so much talent in his first three seasons -- his fellow players voted him the league's hardest hitter and toughest all-around player -- that he was expected to move right into the top echelon of NHL defensemen this season.
That schedule was aborted by an incident in Pittsburgh Nov. 6, when he crashed into the boards and bruised his right knee. Although he returned to action three weeks later, Stevens did not feel comfortable on the ice for much of the season.
"It took a lot longer than I thought before the leg felt right," Stevens said. "I didn't really feel 100 percent until the start of March. That was my best month, and it's carried on."
Stevens had six goals and 11 assists in March while compiling a plus-six rating. Over the last eight games of the regular season, though, he was minus four, with 17 opposition goals overshadowing 13 pluses. He was caught several times making ill-timed offensive moves, and he paid a price for staying on the ice too long.
Stevens was not the only defenseman disappointing Coach Bryan Murray, who talked to all six before the playoffs. Murray also changed some pairings, assigning Greg Smith as Stevens' partner. The results were dramatic.
"I had discussions with all the defensemen about their roles, and Scott really came forward," Murray said. "Sometimes with guys you have to rethink your expectations, but Scott has shown me he can do everything I thought he was capable of.
"The whole defensive corps was trying to do too much, holding the puck and not being as fluid on the breakout. But they're obviously back to a very high level.
"We've got experience and great depth back there. Greg Smith has been very supportive to Scott. Greg doesn't care if he gets the puck; he just likes to play. Scott likes to have the puck and do things with the puck. Greg is strong and knows when to cover and when to pull out, all the things that were hurting us."
The injection of Smith and John Barrett into the rotation has reduced the ice time for Stevens and Rod Langway. Stevens can feel the difference physically.
"I always seemed to be tired in the playoffs before," Stevens said.
"Using more defensemen helps, too. You can do more things when you're not as tired. If you play too much the first two periods, you're tired in the third and you can't do anything offensively. You're afraid to hurt the team.
"I want to be out there, and I like to play 28 or 30 minutes. I feel stronger the more I play -- up to a point. One thing I was doing at the end of the year was staying out too long. Maybe I was trying to do too much.
"If you take a real long shift -- I had one of three minutes that was unreal -- it can destroy you, where you don't recover for the rest of the game. But they've shown me the playoff shifts and they're pretty good, 50 seconds or a minute or 1:10 at the most."
As expected, after he won all three games against the Islanders, Pete Peeters will be in goal for the opener of the divisional final on Thursday. . . . Mike Gartner looked good in skating drills yesterday, and Murray said, "Mike is right back now. He was just jumping." . . . Although Bob Carpenter was limping off skates, he, too, was close to 100 percent on the ice. . . . Tickets remain for the first two home games of the next series, Thursday and Saturday if the opponent is the New York Rangers, Monday and Wednesday (April 23) if it is the Philadelphia Flyers. The Flyers and Rangers will play Game 5 of their divisional semifinal tonight.