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Start Spreading the News About Knicks, Islanders : New York: City is excited about two teams in the playoffs.

May 15, 1993|STEVE JACOBSEN | NEWSDAY

NEW YORK — We are blessed with their grit. The Islanders and the Knickerbockers get in your hair and in your teeth and in your eyes. You know the commercial for the cleanser, "Hasn't scratched yet?" That's not them.

At a time like this, they make us laugh. They are, in New York terms, hot stuff.

How could the Knicks come from so far back, come from playing so badly, to tie a game like that and win in overtime?

Better still, how could the Islanders win the sixth game like they did from the Penguins? How come they weren't dead a long time ago?

And here they are, a team that had nothing better than a chance to make the playoffs and be eliminated in the first round, taking the two-time Stanley Cup champions to the seventh game.

The Islanders play on Pittsburgh's ice Friday night and the Penguins should have the advantage. Then again, the Penguins were supposed to have the advantage in the first game and the sixth game, and all of the games.

And once you get to the seventh game, who knows. Get a breakaway early and it could be the difference. It wouldn't be exaggerating to think they would pull off the greatest hockey upset in the last 25 years.

Since they learned who they are, the Islanders do not back down.

And if you traced all of that back to the beginning, the trail would lead to Pat Riley and Al Arbour. They are wildly different, yet remarkably similar.

As intense as Riley was when the Knicks were coming back against Charlotte in the second game of their series, he wouldn't reveal it. Not any more than he'd go out with wrinkled trousers or with lint on his jacket. Not any more than he'd permit his hair to be mussed.

It wasn't until the game was all but locked away that Riley took a deep breath and sighed.

The Knicks are elegant because of Riley's clothes. They're glamorous because they play in New York, and at courtside you could see Woody Allen, John McEnroe, Lawrence Taylor, Wellington Mara and John Thompson crossing and uncrossing their legs. And Sharon Stone, sigh!

The Islanders had Sen. Al D'Amato and Cong. Peter King, and the alumni--Clark Gillies, Denis Potvin and Wayne Merrick. And Debbie Gibson sang the anthem on opening night.

That's more Arbour's element. He lacks charisma. He does have charm, like an amiable bear.

The Penguins got the fifth game off in a surge, which is what they do. Mario Lemieux showed he was ready to play by sprinting out for the start of the game. The crowd went nuts. The Penguins were going to blow the Islanders away. Nineteen seconds into the game Lemieux scored. He assisted on another goal at 54 seconds. At 1:48 it was 3-0.

Arbour called a timeout after the second goal. He walked back and forth behind the bench holding his palms down, telling his players to calm down, they still had plenty of time. So instead of coming apart, his team resisted a blowout. The Penguins won, 6-3, but there was a point where it was 4-2 and the Islanders missed a shot at an open net.

The result was that they were able to hold themselves together to win the sixth game at Nassau Coliseum and force this showdown.

Arbour doesn't transmit panic. He doesn't dwell on what has already happened and can't be changed; he does dwell on what can be done to control the future.

Arbour won four Stanley Cups as a coach of the Islanders the first time around, and won three as a player. Riley won four championships as coach and one as a player.

Riley was out of basketball one year after playing. "I sat on the beach writing a book for six months," he said. "It's in the attic." He took the most menial front-office job to get in the door. When he was out of coaching one year, he had to get back.

Arbour was retired for 2 1/2 seasons and came back because the organization needed him. When it didn't find a replacement he stayed. When some trades brought young talent, his interest perked.

Arbour coaching against Scotty Bowman is a rare battle of old masters. They have lasted. Bowman won four championships coaching Montreal before Arbour won his four with the Islanders.

One night in 1970, Bowman was coaching St. Louis and sent himself off on a scouting trip. He told Arbour, who was near the end as a player, "You coach." Arbour didn't panic then, either.

Both Arbour and Riley are sharp judges of talent -- especially of the one skill that could turn a game. They are not afraid to go with their judgment.

Because Pat Flatley is hurt, Arbour used Steve Junker in his first NHL game Wednesday and Junker assisted on the goal for a 2-1 lead. He had Tom Fitzgerald for a role, and he scored two shorthanded goals on one penalty in the fourth game.

Riley called Hubert Davis off the bench for his first significant NBA playoff minutes and he scored the last five points to get the Knicks to overtime. He hit the three-pointer with 44 seconds to play that tied the score. "The kid," Riley called him. Over the season Riley had the kid prepared.

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