NHL PLAYOFF NOTES : Rouse Proves to Be Key for the Maple Leafs

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Toronto defenseman Bob Rouse had only three goals and 14 points in 82 regular-season games, so his postseason contributions qualify as an offensive explosion.

Rouse, a cautious and defense-oriented defenseman, rebounded a shot by Doug Gilmour to score the first goal during Toronto's 4-2 victory Sunday at the Forum, giving him two points in the series. In 18 playoff games, he has two goals and seven points.

More important for the Leafs, he has been solid defensively. His plus-minus rating is plus-four, including his plus-two performance Sunday.

"Bob Rouse has come up front and been our most steady defenseman," Maple Leaf Coach Pat Burns said. "Bob's been our anchor."

Said Rouse of the urgency he felt after a pregame meeting Sunday: "We just stressed how close (to the Stanley Cup finals) we really are at this point, and how disappointing it would be to lose this game and pretty much be eliminated. It's taken us 110 games to get here, and we realized it would have taken another 110 games and a few breaks to get back here again."

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Rouse, acquired by Toronto from the Washington Capitals in January of 1991 with Peter Zezel for Al Iafrate, said the Leafs might try a psychological ploy today and pretend they are trailing in the series instead of even.

"Whenever we've had our backs against the wall this year, we've played extremely well," he said. "When we haven't, we haven't played well. In our hearts, we knew the series could be over if we didn't win (Sunday's) game. We dug down and did it. Now, we just have to improve our play when our backs aren't against the wall."

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Carol Vadnais, who spent 17 seasons in the NHL with the Boston Bruins, New York Rangers and California and Oakland Seals, is scouting this series for the Montreal Canadiens. Vadnais wouldn't say which way he thinks the series will go, but he hasn't been overly impressed with either team.

"Toronto plays better when they're two goals down," he said. "When they're ahead, they're a little cautious. When they have to open it up, they seem to play a little better."

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Zezel, who suffered a strained neck during Game 3 and missed Game 4, might return tonight. His replacement, rookie Mike Eastwood, had a goal and an assist.

Center John Cullen, also sidelined because of a neck injury, used some of his time while in California to visit the specialist who treated a similar disk injury that plagued Pittsburgh's Mario Lemieux.

By sitting down Dmitri Mironov on Sunday, Burns had only five defensemen in uniform. But that ploy worked, as it had in Game 7 of the Maple Leafs' first-round series against Detroit and the first three games of their series against St Louis.

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Three former Maple Leaf standouts, analyzing Toronto's Game 4 victory in the Toronto Star, gave Kelly Hrudey a grade of B for his goaltending, the Kings' defensemen a B and their forwards a B-minus.

Toronto goalie Felix Potvin got an A-minus from Hall of Fame goalie Johnny Bower: "Felix wasn't overworked, but he made key saves when he had to."

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After converting two of seven power-play opportunities Sunday, the Kings are 15 for 97 (15.5%) in the playoffs. That's far below their 20.1% efficiency during the season. But the Leafs haven't done much better. They are 15 for 90 (16.7%), also below their 21% regular-season percentage.

Jari Kurri's short-handed goal in Game 3 was his ninth in postseason play, the third-highest career total. Mark Messier (13) and Wayne Gretzky (10) are ahead of him.

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Looking for the hysterical hockey fan? Toronto's Maple Leaf Gardens would seem to be a good place to start.

After all, this place is to hockey what Boston Garden is to basketball.

This is where angry fans showered the Kings last week with everything they could get their hands on, including a crutch .

The Forum, on the other hand, is supposed to be a haven for the laid- back California hockey fan. Nothing more menacing than a doughnut comes flying onto the ice there.

But two Toronto fans in the Inglewood arena for Game 3 Friday night feel quite differently.

"I was in Atlanta for the World Series, and the fans there were so friendly," 25-year-old Deej Phar told the Toronto Sun. "But here (the Forum), we were afraid for our lives. You wouldn't believe the abuse we got Friday night.

"And that was after they won."

Phar was wearing a Doug Gilmour jersey and his companion, Jonathan Ein, was wrapped in a Canadian flag.

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Since the best-of-seven playoff format was adopted in 1939, 117 series have been tied, 2-2, after four games. The team that won Game 5 has won the series 98 times.

Times staff writer Steve Springer contributed to this story.

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