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Lindros, Rookie Duo Help Flyers Take Care of Rangers

NHL playoffs: Zubrus, Niinimaa score on two of first three shots against Richter in Philadelphia's 3-1 opening victory.

May 17, 1997|HELENE ELLIOTT | TIMES STAFF WRITER

PHILADELPHIA — So much for the Philadelphia Flyers' goaltending controversy.

The way Eric Lindros and rookies Dainius Zubrus and Janne Niinimaa played in the Flyers' 3-1 victory over the New York Rangers in the opener of the Eastern Conference finals, Bernie Parent--the hero of Philadelphia's Stanley Cup-winning teams in 1974 and 1975--could have been in net Friday at the CoreStates Center and they would still have won.

Garth Snow, back in goal after being benched in favor of Ron Hextall for the Flyers' second-round clincher against Buffalo, became a footnote in Friday's drama after Zubrus and Niinimaa scored on two of the Flyers' first three shots on Ranger goalie Mike Richter. Buoyed by their early success and sustained by solid penalty killing, the Flyers kept the Rangers off balance with their energetic forechecking and breakneck pace and held the Rangers scoreless until Luc Robitaille scored with 10 seconds to play.

All in all, it was an impressive performance before an appreciative crowd of 20,074, the largest to attend a Flyer game in Philadelphia. It wasn't perfect, but Lindros figured it came close.

"We got to our forecheck well in the first period and everybody was chipping in," said Lindros, who had three assists and was a physical force all night. "Dainius scored and then Janne, and they're our two youngest guys. . . .

"They're a great hockey club when they get skating. We really have to pick up our play in the neutral zone and finish our checks, and we did a good job with that tonight. When we did break down, Garth was there."

Their breakdowns were rare. More often, it was the Rangers who were caught off guard and scrambling.

"Philadelphia came out and forechecked a little harder than what we were used to in the first two series," said Ranger center Mark Messier, who had only one shot and wasn't much of a factor. "It took us a period to get adjusted. After the first period we played a decent game, not a great game, but we gave ourselves opportunities to get back into the game."

The Flyers never really let them back in.

Zubrus, promoted to the first line with Lindros and John LeClair because regular "Legion of Doom" right wing Mikael Renberg had a sore ankle, opened the scoring at 2:28 when he backhanded the rebound of a LeClair shot over Richter. Niinimaa capitalized on a Flyer power play at 4:39, after Lindros dug the puck out behind the net and found Niinimaa at the edge of the right circle. Without taking time to settle the puck on his stick, Niinimaa snapped a shot over Richter's glove for his first playoff goal.

"It was a big thing for us to get a few [goals] on Richter early," said Niinimaa, a Finn who will be 22 next week. "We have a lot of guys who can score and it gave us a lot of confidence as a team. It allowed us to play our style of game, our tactics."

The Rangers had only 12 shots on Snow in the first two periods but took 13 in the final 20 minutes. Two of those came during a four-on-three power play early in the period, but Snow never faltered. Slightly more than two minutes after the Ranger power play ended, Eric Desjardins was credited with the Flyers' third goal after his shot from the right point caromed off the skate of Ranger defenseman Bruce Driver and into the net.

Snow lost his shutout on Robitaille's backhander from close range, but he had no complaints. "I didn't see many second shots. The key was I saw a lot of shots from the perimeter," he said. "There were a couple of shots through some traffic, but the guys played a great game in front of me."

Which is more than the Rangers did for Richter, who began the game with a playoff-leading 1.31 goals-against average and .959 save percentage. "We feel we can up the ante a little bit," Messier said.

They will have to. Then again, they've done it before. The Rangers have lost the opener in each of their last nine playoff series but rallied to win the series six of the previous eight times. Wayne Gretzky said the Rangers aren't in "a panic situation," but he knows the Flyers may be a larger roadblock than any the Rangers have seen in a while. They're certainly more forbidding than the Florida Panthers or New Jersey Devils, the Rangers' previous victims this spring.

"All three [opening] games that we lost, we deserved to lose," Gretzky said. "As you go along in the playoffs, teams become better. That's not a knock against Florida or New Jersey. It's just fact.

"This team is better than the other teams we played and they deserved to win, no question about it. . . . Our hats go off to them. They did a lot of good things. They scored on the power play they had, Lindros played well and their goaltender played well. Sometimes you get beat, and we have to regroup."

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