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THE NHL / HELENE ELLIOTT

Showdown in the Wild, Wild East

May 20, 1997|HELENE ELLIOTT | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Despite ominous predictions the Western Conference finals would become a blood bath because of animosity between the Colorado Avalanche and Detroit Red Wings, it's the East finals that are shaping up as a real powder keg.

Referee Terry Gregson did an excellent job in the West opener, calling a tight game from the start and making it clear he wouldn't tolerate goonery. The Avalanche and Red Wings are playing hard but are staying within bounds, except for occasional borderline dirty plays by Claude Lemieux or Vladimir Konstantinov.

In the East, however, things could get out of control tonight when the series moves to Madison Square Garden for Game 3.

Ranger winger Esa Tikkanen, perhaps under the delusion he's a lumberjack, hacked at Eric Lindros' legs late in New York's 5-4 victory over the Philadelphia Flyers on Sunday. Shane Churla slashed Lindros repeatedly, and Dallas Eakins introduced himself to Lindros by rubbing his glove in the Flyer center's face. "I saw he had a little black mark on his helmet and wanted to make sure I got it off," said Eakins, who was penalized once and got away with many more infractions. "This series is very physical and it is very dirty. I'm sure you guys [reporters] don't see half of it."

The Flyers aren't angels either. Trent Klatt tried to rearrange Brian Leetch's right arm, drilling him into the boards and jamming Leetch's wrist, and Ranger Coach Colin Campbell claimed Lindros kicked at Ulf Samuelsson's head during a scrum. Luc Robitaille and Doug Lidster were scarred by Lindros' stick in Game 1; Robitaille has a 20-stitch gash above his left eye. "He looks like he's been playing playoff hockey," Leetch said.

There's nothing wrong with rugged, physical games. Clean hip or shoulder hits are fine. They make hockey exciting. But the Rangers and Flyers are threatening to cross the line of what's acceptable, even in the playoffs.

The other day, a reporter asked Lindros if he is a brutal person. Lindros, taken aback, said he doesn't think of himself as brutal. He's not. He's doing whatever he can get away with but will stop if a limit is set and he's penalized enough times to hurt his team. That's true of every player.

It's not the players who are brutal. It's the game that's becoming brutal.

These are the NHL's best teams and best players. They should be able to play without fear of being maimed. Dan Marouelli and Paul Devorski, the referees in Games 1 and 2, didn't prevent that. "I don't know if [the two teams] can get much nastier," Campbell said. If tonight's referee, Bill McCreary, doesn't set a strict tone from the outset, prepare for the worst.

BREAKING OUT OF THE TRAP

This year's semifinalists share some commendable traits: They're built around skill, favor offense without ignoring defense and don't play the neutral-zone trap, the dull defensive strategy that carried the New Jersey Devils to the Stanley Cup in 1995 and helped the Florida Panthers reach the finals last year.

The Devils, who took defense to a boring extreme, missed the playoffs last season and this spring were eliminated in the second round by the Rangers. Florida lost to the Rangers in the first round this spring.

Of this year's final four, only the Detroit Red Wings have used anything like a trap. But even they turned to old-fashioned grinding and dashes of speed.

The skill and skating are welcome sights. "We go in cycles in the game," Ranger center Wayne Gretzky said. "And Florida had a great deal of success with the way they played last year and what they did. They were able to upset a couple of pretty talented teams: Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. Ultimately, though, Colorado was victorious in the way they played, the speed game, and yet they were still a good checking hockey club. . . .

"If you look at all four teams, they are solid defensively, with good goaltending. It's going to be hard to score goals. But the common thing they have is that they all can skate."

Still, the trap isn't about to vanish because it's still an effective ploy for offensively challenged teams. And with rules enforced in ways that discourage scoring--the zero-tolerance attitude toward attackers in the crease and a directive not to call marginal obstruction penalties--the trap allows teams with little talent to be competitive.

Ranger General Manager Neil Smith has a theory about the elimination of trapping teams. "I think it means people have learned to play against those teams," Smith said. "We knocked out two of the best. . . . Whoever is successful this year will be copied too, unless you get a team like Colorado that's so deep few teams can match them."

When the swift, skillful Edmonton Oilers won five Cups in seven years, other teams imitated their wide-open game. The success of the Red Wings, Avalanche, Flyers and Rangers may have the same effect. "Hopefully this will open up the game a little bit." Gretzky said.

Amen.

HELP WANTED

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