Paul Baxter has said it over and over this season: When the Eagles use their assets - speed and size (he's adding intelligence now, too) - they are a very good team. "Certainly tonight should reinforce that," said Baxter.

Tuesday night in the Salt Palace, as the Eagles opened defense of their two consecutive Turner Cup championships, they hit hard and often, clubbing Denver 5-1.The Eagles outshot the Rangers 54-27 and collected 22 hits in the first period alone - almost one good, hard check for every shot on goal (24).

On Monday, Baxter outlined a game plan that called for a finished check on every Ranger player who handled the puck in his own zone and an overall physical, uptempo game. Tuesday, that's just what he got. "We had a lot of guys giving a total effort," said Baxter. "When everyone's doing it, it can be debilitating" to the other team.

Even the smaller forwards, like Rich Chernomaz and Peter Lappin, known more for scoring, threw devastating checks.

"It's hard to play that kind of a game, but there's no more gratifying feeling," said 6-foot-5 Eagle left winger Stu Grimson, who scored the first goal of the 1988-89 playoffs for Salt Lake and assisted on the second, by linemate Martin Simard, who had two goals for the night. Their center, Marc Bureau, also had a goal as the checking line produced four of the five scores.

"That's a big, strong, physical line," said Baxter, "and when they contribute offensively, it's a big bonus."

Eagle goalie Steve Guenette appreciated what the checkers accomplished. "They set the tempo early for the whole series," he said. "Four goals - that's the best I've ever seen that line play."

But hey, it's playoff hockey - a time for the physical guys to shine.

For Simard, it was pure satisfaction. He sat out most regular-season games against Denver, suspended by the IHL for the early December incident in which Ranger Mark Janssens suffered a severe but accidental head injury in a fight with Simard. Janssens, too, was suspended for games against the Eagles. He returned to play a month ago with Denver, then got called up to New York. He returned when New York was knocked out of the NHL playoffs.

Tuesday was the first time Simard and Janssens played in the same game since the fight. Simard had his two goals - and a game-high eight shots on goal - and Janssens had the lone Ranger goal and a team-high five shots on goal.

Said Simard, "I love these (playoff) games, and playing Denver is special," he said. "I love playing them. The games are always physical, and they don't quit."

Grimson, however, noted that the constant beating took a toll on the Rangers. "Their defensemen were wearing down, and we seemed to be beating them to the puck," he said.

Grimson's, at 6:28, was the only goal of the first period. Simard and Bureau scored at 1:34 and 5:32 of the second. Janssens' came at 6:16 of the second on a 5-on-3 power-play slap shot that caught Gunette by surprise at the amount of rise it had. "We were two men short, and you've got to come up with that save; there's no excuse not to," said Guenette.

The Eagles killed the rest of that penalty and all of another 5-on-3 late in the second, and Lappin and Simard goaled at 1:52 and 10:47 of the third.

Denver Coach Doug Soetaert, whose Rangers hung close to the Eagles in March 31-April 5 four-game series, was disheartened. "My team did not come to play a playoff game. I'm very disgusted with some players," he said.

Goalie Mike Richter, who kept it from being 10-1, and forwards Janssens, Simon Wheeldon and Paul Broten were singled out for good, hard work, but for others, Soetaert said this: "It was a poor exhibition by the Denver Rangers, and some guys are going to pay for it."

Game 2 of the Turner Cup quarterfinal series is Thursday night in the Salt Palace, and the best-of-seven playoff shifts to Denver Friday and Saturday.