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Whaler Fans Find Bruin Fans Unbearable

THE HARTFORD COURANT

High above the Civic Center ice, in what are supposed to be the cheap seats -- $31 face value -- the dominant colors were black and gold, and the noise was joyful.

“If the Whalers take the Bruins, I’ll be rooting for the Whalers,” said a black-shirted Bruins fan who works in Bloomfield and lives in Springfield.

“But that’s never gonna happen,” his friend said.

It’s looking less likely, isn’t it? With Sunday night’s four-goal, third-period explosion and 6-3 victory, the infidels from the north have won back-to-back games after losing Game 1. They have taken charge of this best-of-seven series, and their fans -- a raucous occupying army -- have taken charge of the upper reaches of the Civic Center. A U.N. peace-keeping force would have little luck silencing them.

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Home-ice advantage? Are you kidding? Listening to the roar of the crowd as the Bruins piled it on in the third period, you’d have thought you were in Boston Garden.

It wasn’t a total loss for Whalers management. Forced to look at too many empty orange seats this season as the locals tired of their team’s continued mediocrity, Whalers management was happy to report a sellout crowd of 15,635 for Game 3, the first game of the series on Civic Center ice.

They were even happy to report that about 40 percent of the ticket holders were Bruins fans. And why not? Everybody’s money is green.

But they couldn’t be happy with the result, as the Whalers, playing lethargically, seemed to forget that there are three periods in a hockey game. The Whalers looked little like the formidable Gang Green that gained a 1-1 split in the Boston Garden games. Sunday, as if dazed from the unseasonable heat, the Whalers took some stupid penalties. It cost them.

“They (Whalers) lost their composure a little bit in the third period,” Bruins coach Mike Milbury said. “It wouldn’t help them to continue to do that. Our power play is good enough to hurt them.”

Before the series, Whalers coach Rick Ley talked about the need for his players to play with “intelligent intensity,” playing hard and rough, but avoiding dumb penalties.

Pat Verbeek, stocky, blocky and forever feisty, epitomizes Ley’s kind of player. Statistics are often misleading, but not in Verbeek’s case. No other NHL player leads his team in goals and penalty minutes. Yet Verbeek has done it in back-to-back seasons since the Whalers stole him from the New Jersey Devils in exchange for Sylvain Turgeon.

Verbeek plays hard and is durable. In two seasons, he hasn’t missed a game. Fittingly, Verbeek’s plus-minus was 0 in the regular season. As good as he is, when he loses his temper, which is fairly often, he seems to take away what he gives.

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“He’s such a competitor,” Ley said on the eve of the series, “but I’m sure he’s wise enough that he won’t let his teammates down with foolish penalties in the playoffs.”

Look again. Verbeek had a goal and an assist. He has three goals and two assists in this series. He also committed three penalties in the offensive zone in the first two periods, including a stupid roughing penalty of Nevin Markwart, when Verbeek clotheslined Markwart at the Adam’s apple, bringing Markwart’s progress to an immediate and painful halt.

It put Verbeek in the penalty box, where he sat while the Bruins scored a power-play goal to take a 2-1 lead. That was not “intelligent intensity.”

But Verbeek being Verbeek, the grittiest of Whalers made amends by tying the score at 2 with 18 minutes, 1 second left.

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Then the Bruins put the Whalers in their rear view mirror, and the upper reaches of the Civic Center were a black-shirted forest of high-fives and hoarse screams. If the Whalers play like this again Tuesday night in Game 4 at the Civic Center, they’ll be looking at elimination when they go to Boston for Game 5 Thursday night.

So much for promising starts.

“You ask your players to play with emotion,” Ley said. “At the same time, that’s the thing that’ll kill you.”

Emotion didn’t kill any Bruins fans Sunday night, but being fans, they did try to ape their heroes. Since stick-swinging in the stands is frowned upon, the fans, like their heroes, were often forced to resort to their fists. What good is spending good money to go to a game if you can’t feel like a participant by beating somebody up, right?

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“It was nice to have the Bruins fans in the building,” Milbury said. “But they got a little bit out of control.”

The police eventually stopped the fights, but not the singing.

“The Hartford Failures,” somebody sang. “Goodbye Whalers,” others sang, “We’re sad to see you go.”

By then, Verbeek had already gone. With 3:47 left, he received a five-minute major penalty for high-sticking, which carries with it an automatic game misconduct.

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Their leader had been banished, but it hardly mattered -- Gang Green was finished.


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