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Canadiens' Damphousse a standout when it counts

(c) 1996 Copyright
(c) 1996 Associated Press

NEW YORK (Apr 19, 1996 - 21:53 EST) -- Mention the NHL's elite centers and the name of Vincent Damphousse hardly jumps out.

Yet he's the center of attention so far in the first-round playoff series between the Montreal Canadiens and New York Rangers.

With four goals and two assists in the first two games, the Canadiens' assistant captain has overshadowed such prominent centers as teammate Pierre Turgeon and the Rangers' Mark Messier.

"Vinny has been the soul of this team," linemate Mark Recchi said after Damphousse's two-goal, two-assist performance Thursday night that gave the Canadiens a 5-3 victory and a 2-0 lead in the best-of-7 series.

Games 3 and 4 of the series are at Montreal on Sunday and Tuesday.

Playoff heroics are nothing new for Damphousse, a converted left wing. In the 1993 playoffs, he scored 23 points, including 11 goals, in 20 games to help the Canadiens win the Stanley Cup.

Even then, he seemed to be overshadowed by his more illustrious teammates such as goaltender Patrick Roy.

Damphousse's playing style might be one of the reasons. He's not flashy, and is generally considered as much a defensive forward as a scoring machine.

Damphousse's photograph in the Montreal media guide typifies his two-way talents. He's depicted in blue-collar garb with a hard hat and a rope slung over his shoulder: the ultimate "working man."

In the series against the Rangers, one of the main assignments for the 6-foot-1, 190-pounder is to contain Messier, the Rangers' captain and leading scorer.

Returning from a rib injury, Messier still isn't himself, and Damphousse hasn't made it any easier for him. Messier has only had one assist so far in the series.

"I worry about him," Damphousse said of Messier. "I always worry about him. I want to pressure him on defense."

At the same time, Damphousse is giving the Rangers plenty of worries with his offense. Teammates say his two-way play has sparked the Canadiens all season.

"He's our leader -- everyone follows him," said Mark Bureau, the more renowned Turgeon notwithstanding.

Actually, Damphousse quietly tied Turgeon for the team goal-scoring lead this season with 38 and Turgeon had only two more points.

Damphousse's 38 goals and 56 assists for 94 points in 80 games is vintage Vincent.

In 10 seasons in the NHL with Toronto, Edmonton and Montreal, Damphousse has had no less than 33 goals five times, topped by 40 for Montreal in 1993-94.

His one aberration since a 33-goal season for Toronto in 1989-90 was last year, when he only scored 10 goals in the lockout-abbreviated 48-game season.

He was stuck in Jacques Demers' doghouse then, and finally saw the light and flourished when Mario Tremblay took over as coach early this season.

"Vinnie has been doing this kind of job all season," Bureau said.

Damphousse was a first-round pick by the Maple Leafs, sixth overall, in the 1986 draft. The 28-year-old Montreal native was drafted as a left wing out of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League.

Two trades later, Damphousse has arrived back in a big way in Montreal.

"I'm skating well," he said. "I'm opportunistic. This has to rank with one of my best playoff performances. I just feel good."

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