The last time the New York Rangers met the Los Angeles Kings in the Stanley Cup playoffs, former Union College goalie Steve Baker played a big role for the Rangers.
Baker helped the Rangers upset the Kings in the preliminary round of the 1981 playoffs. The series featured an infamous bench-clearing brawl in Game 2 that Baker missed out on at the Forum in Inglewood, Calif., the Kings’ former home.
The Rangers and Kings begin the Stanley Cup final tonight in Los Angeles.
The Rangers finished in fourth place in the Patrick Division with a 30-36-14 record in 1981. The Kings placed second in the Norris Division with a 43-24-13 record.
It was a tough season for the Rangers. While Baker started the year in the AHL with the New Haven Nighthawks, the Rangers got off to a 4-13-3 start. That led to the resignation of coach and general manager Fred Shero and the hiring of Craig Patrick to fill the roles.
The Rangers started the season with John Davidson and Wayne Thomas as the goalies. But injuries led to Doug Soetaert and Baker taking over. Soetaert played in 39 games, while Baker got into 21. Baker posted a 10-6-5 record with a 3.48 goals-against average and two shutouts.
“We struggled as a club down the stretch just to get into the playoffs,” said Baker, who played for the Dutchmen from 1975-78 and was inducted into the Union Athletics Hall of Fame in 2007. “Craig Patrick had taken over as head coach, and Craig kind of gave me a nod, pretty much, the last 25 to 30 games of the season. I think I played every game but one. Every game was like a playoff atmosphere because we were pushing just to get there.”
And the Rangers were feeling the heat because the crosstown-rival New York Islanders were the defending Stanley Cup champions.
“When you play in Manhattan, with the press being the way it is and you have the Islanders sitting on a Stanley Cup across the way from you,” Baker said, “if you don’t make the playoffs, you won’t hear the end of it.”
That season, the NHL had 21 teams. Unlike the current playoff format, which has the Eastern Conference champion meeting the Western Conference champion in the Stanley Cup final, the 1981 playoffs placed the top 16 teams in order of finish, regardless of the conferences they were in. That meant the Kings, who were in the Prince of Wales Conference, were the fourth seed, and the Rangers, who were in the Clarence Campbell Conference, were the 13th seed.
The preliminary round was a best-of-five. The Kings, who had home-ice advantage, were loaded offensively, thanks to the Triple Crown Line of Marcel Dionne (58 goals, 77 assists), Dave Taylor (47 goals, 65 assists) and Charlie Simmer (56 goals, 49 assists).
“They were a well-oiled machine,” Baker said. “I know my counterpart at the other end of the ice, Mario Lessard, had a career year that year. We had our work cut out for us, no question.”
But in Game 1, Baker shined. He made 31 saves in a 3-1 victory on April 8.
The teams played again the next night, and the Kings evened the series with a 5-4 win. But it was the brawl at the end of the period that is remembered the most.
The genesis of it started earlier in the period when Rangers defenseman Barry Beck punched Kings defenseman Rick Chartraw while referee Bryan Lewis was keeping Chartraw away from Beck.
As the buzzer sounded and with the Kings leading, 2-1, the teams gathered in the Rangers’ zone, and everything broke loose. Only Baker missed it all. He skated off to the locker room as soon as the period ended, and he had a very good reason.
“You’re in the Forum, and it’s not great ice anyway,” said Baker, who faced 20 shots in the period. “It was hot as hell in the building. I know I saw a lot of work in that first period, and I was so dehydrated and exhausted. I knew there was some [stuff] going on right at the end of the period, and I just went right off the ice. This stuff went on for like 10 to 15 minutes.”
The series moved to Madison Square Garden, and the Rangers put the Kings away. They rolled to a 10-3 victory in Game 3, and clinched the series with a 6-3 triumph in Game 4.
“We kind of beat them up physically, even though we lost that game,” Baker said. “We brought them back to New York, and I always say that the Garden crowd is good for one goal in a playoff environment. We just ran over them [in Game 3]. Once that happened, I think their atoms were sucking canal water. They just didn’t want to dig out of that hole.”
The Rangers upset the second-seeded St. Louis Blues in the best-of-seven quarterfinals, 4-2, before getting swept by the Islanders in the semifinals.
“I don’t know if anyone was happy [with how the playoffs ended],” Baker said. “You always have visions of grandeur dancing with the Cup around. That was the goal. But it was such a tough season. The transition from Freddie Shero starting they year. Craig [Patrick] came in and settled down everything. The team started to jell on the back half. Craig made a commitment to me. We got a couple of upsets. You’re playing against a fabulous franchise [in the Islanders]. That was the second of four years that they put their Stanley Cup trophies together.
“We might have just run out of gas.”