Guess who's coming to Capital Centre? You can throw away those Dave Brown dartboards, because the Philadelphia Flyers are finished.
The New York Rangers, who finished 32 points behind Philadelphia in the regular season, shocked the Flyers, 5-2, tonight in their decisive fifth game and advanced to the Patrick Division final against Washington, a best-of-seven series beginning Thursday in Landover.
John Vanbiesbrouck stopped 34 shots to carry the Rangers to their first victory in the deciding game of a playoff series since they defeated the Montreal Maroons to win the Stanley Cup in 1928. Ten times since, they had gone to a climactic contest and folded.
Not tonight. The Rangers took a 3-1 lead in the second period, saw a fluke goal give the Flyers life with 8 1/2 minutes remaining and then banged in two empty-net scores to wrap it up.
"I'm ecstatic," Vanbiesbrouck said. "Words can't describe it. It's something that doesn't happen every day. I think everybody in this room would have given his left arm to win this game."
In a way, Rangers captain Ron Greschner did. He suffered a broken left wrist in the second period and will not be available to face the Capitals.
Mike Keenan, the losing coach, who reached the Stanley Cup finals as a rookie last year, said: "The main reason why we lost is that the New York Rangers played a hell of a series. We came up against a team rolling on the confidence of a great goaltender and the advantage of playing in a short series. They worked extremely hard and were really ready."
The winning coach was Ted Sator, a Flyers assistant last season. He said, "We didn't come here to wave the white flag. We came down here expecting to win, and the guys in that room refused to accept defeat."
With the Flyers' demise, Edmonton remains the lone semifinalist from last year still in contention, and the Oilers are the only division winner among the eight survivors of first-round play. Philadelphia, with 110 points, had the second-best record in the NHL.
The Rangers, who did not qualify for the playoffs until they tied Washington on the next-to-last day of the season, were the better team tonight, however. If anything, the Flyers were lucky to keep the 17,211 fans in their seats until the final minute.
New York's Pierre Larouche scored the only goal of the first period as Philadelphia goaltender Bob Froese made some superb saves to keep the Flyers close. When Ilkka Sinisalo tied the score early in the second period, it appeared that Philadelphia had survived the storm.
Suddenly, Willie Huber and Mark Osborne, a pair of Detroit castoffs, connected 71 seconds apart for a 3-1 New York advantage.
Huber's goal came on a rebound of a Larouche shot, after Mark Howe had broken up a Rangers four-on-two without being able to clear the zone.
Moments later, the Flyers' Tim Kerr whacked Mike Allison in the mouth with his stick, but referee Don Koharski did not see the foul and no penalty was called. Then Osborne took Bob Brooke's headman pass on the left wing, faked a shot as Froese challenged him and slid the puck behind the goalie.
Vanbiesbrouck made some excellent saves late in the second period and early in the third. Then the Rangers' clear-and-dump game began to work effectively, and the Flyers were in deep trouble.
Suddenly, it became tense once again. The Rangers' Don Maloney's stick-fanned the puck a few feet from the New York blue line, and the Flyers' Brad McCrimmon lifted it toward the net. It landed on edge and skidded past the stick of Vanbiesbrouck, whose view was obscured by Peter Zezel.
The crowd erupted and the Flyers attacked furiously in a bid to tie it. But Vanbiesbrouck stopped seven shots down the stretch, including a remarkable glove save on a long, screened shot by McCrimmon with 6 1/2 minutes left.
"I was lucky to play in Montreal on a Cup team with Kenny Dryden," Larouche said. "After the Flyers made it 3-2, that was Kenny Dryden out there, not John Vanbiesbrouck."
The teams played without a whistle for more than five minutes while the crowd was in uproar. An offside with 68 seconds left produced a brief respite, Froese was lifted for a sixth skater with 56 seconds remaining and Kelly Miller banged the puck off Howe's stick into an empty net 16 seconds later. Maloney hit another empty net to complete the scoring.
"Everything was great until they scored their second goal," Maloney said. "All of a sudden, a little panic set in. The crowd started going and that's as loud as I can ever remember inside a building. You couldn't hear Teddy making the changes on the bench. It was so tense."
Maloney was confident of one thing, though: Vanbiesbrouck would keep the Rangers' net empty.
"You get the feeling he'll stop anything," Maloney said. "So what if they get two-on-ones, three-on-ones, even five on nothing? It's a confidence thing. He's just unbelievable."
That was a word in frequent use tonight.