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STANLEY CUP PLAYOFFS

Rangers Bear the Scar of Late Cut Suffered by LeClair

NHL playoffs: Lindros' power-play goal with 6.8 seconds left gives Flyers 3-2 victory and 3-1 series lead.

May 24, 1997|HELENE ELLIOTT | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NEW YORK — Before Philadelphia left wing John LeClair felt the first stab of pain from the blow to his face by the stick of New York Ranger defenseman Jeff Beukeboom, before it occurred to him to seek treatment for cuts that opened streams of blood on his face, he had one overriding concern.

"My first thought was, 'I hope they catch it,' " LeClair said of the officials. "Play went on and I saw Kerry [Fraser, the referee] had his arm up."

Fraser called a double minor for high-sticking, giving the Flyers a power play. After his wounds were cleaned up, LeClair returned to set up Eric Lindros for the winning goal with 6.8 seconds to play Friday, capping a frantic third period and helping the Flyers wrest a 3-2 victory that pushed the Rangers to the brink of elimination in the Eastern Conference finals.

After sweeping Games 3 and 4 at Madison Square Garden, the Flyers headed back to Philadelphia, where on Sunday they can clinch their first berth in the Stanley Cup finals since 1987. Only 13 teams have rallied to win a best-of-seven series after trailing, 3-1, and the Rangers will have to attempt that with Wayne Gretzky hampered by a swollen right hand, the result of a slash from Flyer defenseman Eric Desjardins.

"We realize the situation we're in. And we put ourselves in a tough hole," said Gretzky, who didn't plan to get his hand X-rayed--perhaps because he doesn't want to confirm his fears.

"Every loss is tough, but this was a tough loss because we battled back and got ourselves back in the game," said Gretzky, whose pass from behind the net set up Brian Leetch for the goal that brought the Rangers even at 2-2 with 2:08 to play. "Unfortunately, we got short-handed and it cost us."

Few could have made a better play than Lindros did on the decisive goal. Zooming toward Ranger goalie Mike Richter on the right side, he challenged Richter to make the first move--and Richter did. After Richter slid to the right post to play LeClair's possible shot, LeClair flicked the puck to his left, to Lindros. The pass came to his backhand, a weaker shot for most players, but there was no weakness in the shot he rifled over a diving Adam Graves and a scrambling Richter.

"I just fired it at the net," Lindros said of his 10th goal of the playoffs. "In those situations you don't really want to get too fine. You just put it on net. Even so, Richter made it across from the other side to partially deflect it."

Richter, who acknowledged he might have committed to LeClair "maybe too much," got a piece of Lindros' shot and came close to repelling it with his stick, but he didn't get close enough. That's appropriate, because the Rangers seem to be getting close but never close enough to subduing the brawnier, deeper Flyers.

"I don't think we feel we're overmatched or that we're getting dominated," Leetch said. "They're making big plays and getting big goals. We've got to find ways to do that."

Said Richter: "It's a disappointment. You have the game there and we did a lot right to get back into it. To lose with six seconds left is definitely disappointing."

Ranger Coach Colin Campbell, who was irate Desjardins' slash of Gretzky wasn't penalized, called the last-minute goal "a bitter way to lose." But he insisted his team is far from finished. "A 3-1 lead is not insurmountable, particularly the way the series has gone," he said. "We played well and I think they're starting to bend. We had numerous chances to score. Our problem was we just couldn't score tonight."

Flyer goalie Ron Hextall had something to do with that. His teammates staked him to a 1-0 lead on Mikael Renberg's wraparound during a power play at 7:08 of the first period, and he protected that until Esa Tikkanen chipped a shot over him at 1:41 of the third period, while the Rangers were shorthanded. Former King John Druce put the Flyers ahead again at 16:47 on a short-handed break, and Hextall was helpless on Leetch's tying goal, at 17:52.

"We got the win, but if it wasn't for Hexy, we wouldn't be going home on the bus with a win," Lindros said.

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