"Without his play, there might not have been a Game 5. Without his play, there might not have been any playoffs." -- Rangers Coach Ted Sator
When former Capitals goalie Pat Riggin made his infamous remarks last year in Prague about Americans stealing Canadian jobs in the National Hockey League, he no doubt was thinking about John Vanbiesbrouck.
The New York Ranger with the name longer than his 5-foot-7 body is a native of Detroit, and he just happened to be chosen as the second-team all-star goalie in the world championships while playing for Team U.S.A. The only other NHL player accorded all-star honors was center Mario Lemieux of Canada.
Vanbiesbrouck's exploits in Prague, where he led the United States to victories over Sweden, Canada, Czechoslovakia and West Germany, brought the young goaltender far more notice than his 12-24-3, 4.22 record with the Rangers. He used it as a confidence builder to come back and dazzle the NHL with a remarkable 31-21-5, 3.32 season that has made him a leading candidate for the Vezina Trophy.
"I love to talk about the world championships, because it was the best tournament I've ever been in," Vanbiesbrouck said. "I was in a frenzy when I went there because I hadn't won in the Rangers' last seven games and I just wasn't ready to stop playing hockey. Doing so well against the best in the world proved to me that I could play."
Vanbiesbrouck has proven that fact to just about everyone else this season. It is patently obvious that without him the Rangers would have wound up in fifth place in the Patrick Division and Vanbiesbrouck now would be tending the nets for Team U.S.A. in Moscow.
When Ted Sator took over as the Rangers' coach last fall, he installed Vanbiesbrouck as the club's No. 1 goaltender, and to be sure there was no doubt about the assignment, veteran Glen Hanlon was shipped to the American Hockey League.
"John is an excellent goaltender and he's a winner," Sator said. "He's also a quality young man. We're not infallible and we have made some mistakes this season, but giving John the job certainly wasn't one of them."
Vanbiesbrouck, after playing superbly in the first three games of the division semifinal series against Philadelphia, was yanked by Sator in the second period Sunday after yielding five goals in 18 shots. Yet there was no doubt that the 22-year-old son of a Belgian bricklayer would be back in the nets for the fifth game.
"He was the one who brought us that far," Sator said.
Certainly, Vanbiesbrouck's teammates were in full agreement with their coach's assessment. During the clubhouse victory celebration after their 5-2 victory in Game 5, the players took turns heaping praise on the little goalie. Don Maloney compared him with John Davidson, who took the Rangers to the Stanley Cup final in 1979. Pierre Larouche equated him with Ken Dryden, a teammate on two Stanley Cup champions in Montreal.
"We had a good game plan: we eliminated their defense and we worked very hard," James Patrick said. "And we had Johnny in the net. He played on his head."
"We can beat the Caps if Johnny comes up big," Maloney said. "His confidence rubbed off on all of us."
"Our goaltender is going to be the story of the playoffs," Willie Huber said. "If Beezer plays well, who knows what will happen."
One writer asked Vanbiesbrouck if the Rangers' first victory in a deciding playoff game since 1928 might be an omen of the club's first Stanley Cup since 1940.
"I wasn't part of that," Vanbiesbrouck replied. "But this organization, more than any other in professional sports, needed a win like this. We had a lot of adversity this year, but the guys stuck together and met the challenge. Now we have to go on from here and start our own identity.
"We had to score goals to beat the Flyers. We did the job technically and showed great composure and character. I'm just trying to play my hardest, to do the best job I can. It just happened. Now we have to prepare to score some goals against Washington."
Vanbiesbrouck is an intense young man and he said much of his motivation for Tuesday's game had derived from watching a Monday night movie about Pete Gray, the one-armed outfielder who played for the St. Louis Browns.
"I watched the movie about the guy playing baseball with one arm, and I was really inspired," Vanbiesbrouck said. "Just think what that had to take. It makes a lot of things that trouble you look a lot smaller."
Vanbiesbrouck figures to bother Washington Coach Bryan Murray in the next two weeks. But Murray, who volunteered some postgame comments in an effort to play mind games with Flyers goalie Bob Froese last month, had nothing but good things to say about Vanbiesbrouck.
"He didn't give the Flyers anything," said Murray, who watched Tuesday's game at the Spectrum. "He played excellent. He showed great quickness and he's a real team guy, a guy you can rally around. The players take great pride in him.
"He made a great save on a screened shot by Brad McCrimmon with the score 3-2, and that's what you need from a goaltender. That was the game, right there."
Asked if he would be ready tonight, after playing five tough games, Vanbiesbrouck said, "Washington's in a good position. I'd have liked to have an extra day's rest or two. But I'm so excited about this, there won't be any problem getting up again."