One of the most satisfying pursuits that falls to the purebred fan of any sport is to sit back when a long league season has run its course and lovingly put his finger on the particular turn of events that decided the winning and the losing of a race. Was it, he asks himself, that double-header in July which Roger Craig and Don Bessent, those first-time-out rookies, won with masterful jobs that really assured the success of the faltering 1955 Dodgers? Was it those back-to-back homers by Bauer and Berra in the ninth that pulled out that "lost" game against Boston on September 16 and shoved the 1955 Yankees back in first for good? Frequently it is hard and many times it is downright impossible to decide what was the Gettysburg of a campaign, the elements being so numerous and their significance so debatable; but nearly everyone who has followed the current National Hockey League season is fairly well agreed that the outcome of the race was decided conclusively on the three nights of January 29, February 2 and February 4.
On those three nights Les Canadiens of Montreal, who had led the league from October on, opposed their ancient tormentors, the Detroit Red Wings, winners of the NHL championship for the last seven years. In capturing quite a number of these pennants, the Red Wings started more slowly than the Canadiens, gradually cut the point difference between them as the season bruised on, and, winning the key games, closed with a rush that had the quality of inevitability about it.
FULL-FED WITH BONNIE CHARLIE
Only last year, you may remember, after L'Affaire Richard, the dispirited Canadiens kicked away their excellent chances for the championship by losing two of their last three games (those two to Detroit) while the Wings flew down the stretch with 10 victories and two ties in their last 12 games. Late this past January, with Detroit coming on fast and Montreal playing somewhat less commanding hockey after suffering its first slump of the season, everyone was wondering if history would repeat itself another time.
It did not. The first game, in Detroit, ended in a 1-1 tie. The Canadiens took the second game, in Detroit, 2-0. They took the third, in Montreal, 2-1. Having entered the series with a 10-point margin over the Wings, they emerged with a 15-point margin. The battle for first place was over past any reasonable doubt, and Montreal proceeded to draw farther and farther away. Only the Stanley Cup playoffs will tell—they start March 20—but it begins to appear that Les Canadiens mean to prove this year that, pleasant as it is to be recognized as one of the most colorful and popular teams in sport, they are full-fed with their old Bonnie Prince Charlie role and are un-romantically determined to win everything in sight, to rule.
In that important three-game series with Detroit, Maurice Richard scored one winning goal and Jean Beliveau scored the other four goals. There is no need to dwell on these facts. They are the expectable ones. At 35 The Rocket, a stride slower in the thighs and a split second slower in his wrists and eye than he was in his prime, is still The Rocket. It stands to reason that he will always score some of the big ones. Same thing with Beliveau (SI, Jan. 23). Even taking into account the continued greatness of Richard, Gordon Howe and Red Kelly, Beliveau is doubtless the finest all-round player in the game today and is beginning to emerge as a performer who can do more things and do them better than any other center in the full history of hockey. Nonetheless, despite the unquestioned contribution of Montreal's big scoring guns and of Bert (Old Elbows) Olmstead—that relentless puck-digger who has been almost as instrumental as Beliveau in making their line with Geoffrion the outstanding forward combination in the league—perhaps the least dispensable member of the team is the veteran defenseman, Doug Harvey.
Besides doing all the unglamorous, seldom-noticed chores that a good defenseman must perform, Harvey knows how to mount a play and the way he does so is perfect for the Canadiens' style of attack. Doug is not one of those weaving rink-length rushers, but no one loses less time starting a counterattack after breaking up a play and no one capitalizes more astutely on a jump. He is up to the other team's blue line in a twinkle, taking in the situation as he mushes forward, looking for his forwards and then, with a solid sense of maneuver, promoting a strong play by feeding the right man the right pass. He is wonderfully adroit also in handling his post at the points (just inside the blue line) on the famed Montreal power play, which does its stuff when the opposing team has a man in the penalty box. (With Geoffrion coming on at the other point and with Olmstead, Beliveau and Maurice Richard usually working up front in games through March 3 Montreal scored no less than 49 of its total 193 goals when enjoying a one-man advantage.)
All in all, Harvey is as complete a defenseman as there is. While you think you appreciate his value when you watch him, you really do not until he is out of the lineup with an injury. Then the Canadiens, star-studded as they are, have trouble getting the puck out of their own territory and the forward lines begin to skate, and over-skate, with much less purpose. Les Canadiens have experienced only one protracted slump this season, and it is more than coincidence that this drop in play began at about the same time Harvey was forced out with an injury in late December and that they began to find their touch again shortly after he returned to duty.
For several seasons now Harvey and Red Kelly of Detroit have been in a class of their own, a discernible cut above the other defensemen in the league. Kelly's style of play, of course, has always been an individual one. A marvelous, tireless skater, he has the energy and the speed and the maneuverability to serve not only as a stout defender but to double as a virtually cohesive part of the offense. This season "Detroit's fourth forward," as Kelly has been called for some time, was actually pressed into service as a forward. Jimmy Skinner, the Wings coach, made the move early in December, after his team had managed to win only 6 of its first 25 games and it seemed they might never get rolling. Skinner's second and third lines had not been producing at all, and he recognized that his first tactical adjustment—using his powerful first line of Howe, Reibel and Lindsay as often as they could climb over the boards—hadn't been getting him anyplace. Overwork was diminishing the H-R-L line's punch, and lack of work wasn't helping the confidence of his newly formed third line and the sluggishness of his second line. The defense had been functioning well, though. Pronovost had been playing fine hockey, Godfrey was doing all right, old Bob Goldham—he entered the NHL way back in 1941 with Toronto (can you believe it?)—was still getting around O.K.; furthermore, Larry Hillman, a very promising defenseman, could be recalled from the minors. So Skinner made his move. He switched Kelly to left wing on his first line and sent Lindsay down to juice up the second. It was a daring bit of juggling, and it worked. Almost overnight the Wings began to win at their customary clip, and until they dropped five out of those six points in that head-on series with Montreal, it looked as if they might be on their way to recapturing all of their old grinding efficiency.
As for Kelly, he was a revelation on left wing. He remained at that position for 26 games, until Pronovost was hurt and he had to be sent back to bolster the defense. Over that stretch Red scored 11 goals and assisted in 13 others, but these statistics barely intimate what an enormous amount of wing he played. One picture or, more accurately, one series of pictures remains clearly in my mind. It is Kelly back-checking with that effortless finesse of his, breaking up one enemy rush after another before they could even get started and generally creating the impression that progress up his side of the rink was virtually impossible, a road temporarily closed to traffic.
After Montreal had beaten off the Wings' one and only challenge, two races were left: the struggle between Toronto, Boston and Chicago for fourth place and the last playoff spot, and the fight for second between the Wings and the New York Rangers. (That is not a misprint; it is the Rangers.) The NHL's curious playoff system, of course, calls for the team that finishes first to play a best-four-of-seven-games series with the third-place team, for the second-and fourth-place clubs to engage in a similar series, and then for a final best-of-seven round between the two winners. The glory and the bigger money the players receive for finishing second have naturally played a part in the battle for the runner-up spot between the Wings and the Rangers. However, the major consideration for both teams has been the knowledge that finishing third means meeting the Canadiens immediately in the playoffs—and who wants to do that! (Should the Rangers reach the final round of the playoffs, the sports world may again be treated to that unique arrangement whereby the circus plays at Madison Square Garden and the Rangers play their home games on some foreign rink.)
RISE OF THE RANGERS
Regardless of how the Rangers fare from this point in, there is little question that Phil Watson has been the coach of the year. Only once since the war have the Rangers succeeded in qualifying for the playoffs, and this year it looked as if they would be lucky, as the man said, to finish as high as the cellar.
Oh, you will hear a lot of hockey buffs asserting now that they had a sneaking suspicion all along that the Rangers were just about ready to catch fire, just as you always meet your Hindsight Harrys prognosticating after the event that, say, Fleck was their choice to beat Hogan and the Monitor was a shoo-in, if you really knew your ironclad vessels, to wallop the Merrimac. Personally, I remember meeting only one hockeyman who, before the season started, picked the Rangers to finish fifth or higher, and I have a strong suspicion that it was not a cool assessment but was prompted by the dazzling fact that he was introduced to Ching Johnson at a party during the off season and split a beer with him.
The main reason why such gloomy prospects were entertained for the Rangers this year was that practically the same old roster was returning. This included only four players of proven major league caliber: Lewicki, Hergesheimer, Howell and Gadsby. For the rest, with the exception of Dave Creighton, acquired from the Wings, whom did they have?
They had, or seemed to have, nothing but the same bunch of youngsters who had previously displayed little else than youth; and today sports fans have learned that just because a player is young is no assurance that he is going to develop into a fine athlete. (They are also wise to the fact that one of the neatest dodges in sports today is pulled by the managers who take themselves off the spot by embarking on perennial youth-movement programs.) Well, a good many of the Rangers' youngsters did mature into good hockey players this year, and for this the credit goes 1) to the players themselves, 2) to Frank Boucher, who rounded them up, and 3) to Watson.
The secret of Watson's success would seem to be the surging pride he took in being a member of the great New York teams before the war. Being a Ranger was the biggest thing in the life of this turbulent, combative young man, the son of a French-Canadian mother and a Scottish-Canadian father, who spent 11 of his formative years as the sole Montreal Maroon fan in a boarding school where only French was spoken and the Canadiens naturally idolized. When his playing days with the Rangers ended after the 1947-48 season, Watson went into coaching. During his seven years in the minors (three with the New York Rovers and four with the Quebec Citadels, later the Frontenacs), the decline of the Rangers grieved him bitterly. " 'My Rangers!' I used to say to myself," Watson was remembering recently. " 'My Rangers! Look what they have become. Doormats, not champions. No one respects them.' " Watson's eye was always on returning to New York, and the knowledge that a hotheaded coach would never be hired was a big factor in his successful conquest of his temper. The call came last spring.
From the start of preseason practice at Saskatoon, Watson treated his players as major leaguers. After all, they were Rangers. He also treated them rough. When Andy Bathgate arrived driving a Cadillac, Watson quickly reminded him and the other players that, in case they had other ideas, during the hockey season hockey came first, morning, noon and night. When Gump Worsley reported overweight, Watson told him, "You have no right to come into training camp weighing 172. You're not that big a man." He threatened to fine the goalie a dollar a pound a day until he got down to 167. Watson has not let up all season. For example, he has abolished the practice of supplying the players with drinking water on the bench. "And we don't have any of that sucking-on-oranges nonsense between periods," Watson explains. "If we're leading by a couple of goals with four minutes left to play, then, maybe, the water comes out." Nothing much escapes Watson's vigilant eye. After a game on the road, he took two players aside in the dressing room. "I don't know if you guys thought you were getting away with it," he admonished them, "but I saw you sneaking that drink of water when you were in the penalty box."
Watson's somewhat McGravian manner has worked because his players perceived that he labored harder at winning than any of them. His hatred of losing became contagious. He built three capable forward lines based on three capable centers—he was a center himself. Early in the season he was rapped with two bench penalties but after that directed the team with poise and shrewdness. He should be around for quite a while.
There is not too much that can be said about the "second-division" clubs, who, it goes without saying, had all hoped for better seasons. Dick Irvin (SI, Feb. 13)got his Black Hawks off to a fast start but even the "Silver Fox's" experience and knowledgeability couldn't convert his collection of castoffs into a functioning unit. Injuries hurt the Hawks but certainly not as much as the continued lack of one or two truly topnotch players to pick up the whole team with their play. Milt Schmidt's Bruins, suffering similarly from injuries and an absence of on-the-ice leadership, went into an alarming midseason nosedive that almost eliminated them from contention then and there. They came back miraculously after Gerry Toppazzini and Real Chevrefils, both of whom could do nothing right for Detroit, were repurchased in January and went off on scoring sprees. The Bruins played better hockey the second half of the season but their defense was still porous. Terry Sawchuk's first year with Boston brought home with a bang that even the most brilliant goalie can be beaten frequently if the opposing team is allowed to swarm en masse for the rebounds.
The Toronto Maple Leafs gambled everything on developing their latest passel of rookies but as usual gambled nothing at all tactically, persevering with their patented sit-on-one-goal brand of play. Two Leafs underwent stunning reversals of form. Sid Smith, who bagged 33 goals last season when he was chosen All-Star left wing, has scored less than 5 this year without a Teeder Kennedy to set him up. Tod Sloan, who scored only 13 goals in 1954-55, came back this year as a center (and with a bonus arrangement for 20, 25, 30 and 35 goals to spur him on) and slapped home more than 35.
Well, the first 70 games are always the hardest, unless you get into the playoffs.
SCORES AND STANDINGS
3. New York