Six weeks ago, Hartford fans would give out with a chorus of boos at the mention of his name, but Saturday night, goaltender Mike Liut was given a standing ovation.
Liut, playing his 15th game in a row, stopped 20 shots as the Whalers routed Toronto, 7-1, to clinch a playoff berth for the first time since 1980, their first season in the NHL.
The veteran netminder is the key reason the Whalers recovered from a midseason slump to qualify for postseason play.
In the last 15 games, the Whalers are 10-3-2 and Liut has given up only 43 goals. Their late-season rally enabled them to pass Buffalo and finish fourth in the Adams Division. They will open a best-of-seven series with division champion Quebec Wednesday night at Quebec.
Hartford fans never really forgave management for sending two popular players, goalie Greg Millen and Mark Johnson, to St. Louis for Liut a little more than a year ago. Slowly, they are beginning to realize that they have one of the best goalies in the league.
"I'm proud of the way this team played down the stretch," Coach Jack Evans said. "When we went into a slump, it wasn't Mike's fault. It was the injury to Ron Francis. Mike has given us solid goaltending all season. That's why he played the last 15 games."
St. Louis 7, Chicago 5--Rick Meagher scored the tie-breaking goal early in the third period at St. Louis to throw the Norris Division race into a mess.
With the Blues and Blackhawks winding up the regular season today at Chicago, there is two points separating the top three teams.
At the moment, Minnesota, which has finished its season, leads with 85 points, Chicago has 84 and St. Louis 83. The Blues can't win, but they can give the North Stars the title with a win today. A tie would also give the North Stars the title.
Minnesota 5, Detroit 3--Willi Plett scored two goals at Bloomington, Minn., to give the North Stars the victory that clinched second place in the Norris Division and assured them of home ice advantage for the first round.
The North Stars finished with 23 points more than they had last season. It was the biggest improvement in the league.
New York Rangers 4, Washington 4--The Rangers had to score two goals in the last two minutes of regulation at Landover, Md., to earn a tie and clinch the final playoff position in the Patrick Division.
Appropriately, James Patrick fired a 50-footer that eluded goaltender Pete Peeters with just 16 seconds left to send the game into overtime. Willie Huber scored his seventh goal of the season with just under two minutes remaining to get the Rangers within range.
The Capitals had all three shots in overtime, but couldn't score and fell a point behind Philadelphia in the race for the title in the Patrick Division. To win their first title in 12 seasons in the NHL, the Capitals have to win tonight in the season finale at Philadelphia.
Philadelphia 4, Pittsburgh 3--Ilkka Sinisalo scored his second goal of the game at 1:49 of overtime at Pittsburgh to end the Penguins' hopes of making the playoffs. It is the fourth year in a row that the Penguins are one of five teams failing to qualify for the playoffs.
The hardfought victory enabled the Flyers to take a one point lead over Washington in the Patrick Division. A tie or win tonight will clinch the title for the Flyers.
Montreal 4, Buffalo 2--Even if the Sabres had won this game at Montreal, they would have become the first team coached by Scotty Bowman that failed to make the playoffs. The Sabres will finish fifth in the Adams Division.
Boston 2, Quebec 2--Keith Crowder scored with 5:09 left in regulation at Quebec to get the Bruins the tie. If the Bruins can beat Hartford today at Boston, they will finish second in the Adams Division and have the home ice advantage for the first round of the playoffs.
New York Islanders 7, New Jersey 1--The highlight of the regular season finale at Uniondale, N.Y., was a token appearance by the Islanders' veteran star Bob Nystrom. Nystrom, unable to play because of a serious eye injury, was on the ice for the opening faceoff. It was his 900th game as an Islander.