To the fascinated crowd filling New York's Madison Square Garden it was like watching the clash of cobra and mongoose. The broad expanse of white ice was empty except for the two opposing players. The crowd hushed. The referee blew his whistle. Gracefully, lazily, the New York Rangers' ace shooter, Andy Bathgate, laid his stick alongside a puck at the first blue line and moved goalward at half throttle. Detroit's goalie, Hank Bassen, cruised out of his cage, cautious and hesitant. Bathgate feinted to the south. Bassen responded. Then, quick as a mongoose and smooth as the ice itself, Bathgate wheeled north, flicked a backhand, and the puck was in the net.
The Garden's grimy old steelwork rang with a million-decibel shout of jubilation, for in this one rare penalty shot New York Ranger fans not only saw victory assured but a whole season redeemed. To fans of other sports it may seem ridiculous for adult human beings to yell their heads off over a fourth-place finish in a six-team league. But to hockey fans, the difference between fourth and fifth is the difference between in and out. When the regular season is done the fifth-place team goes home to oblivion. The fourth-place team goes on to enjoy the riches in prestige and profits of the Stanley Cup playoffs. It may even, as third-place Chicago did last year, win the championship.
The crowd thronging Madison Square Garden to see the Rangers and the Red Wings had come to see the final meeting between two teams whose race for the playoffs had been neck and neck for weeks. Each team had 57 points, and the two points that would go to the winner of this game seemed almost certain to decide—psychologically if not mathematically—who would occupy the coveted fourth place. Moreover, three of the finest, if not the three finest, hockey players in the league were on the ice: Doug Harvey, the Rangers' rookie coach, determined to grab a playoff berth for his team; Detroit's No. 9, Gordie Howe, the aging (33) superstar who this very night would be shooting for his 500th goal; and New York's No. 9, Captain Andy Bathgate, aiming not only for a team triumph but for a first-place spot of his own in league scoring.
Howe, normally one of the coolest men in the game, was so nervous before the Garden contest that he threw up. Bathgate, 29, was feeling better. Still leading the league point-scoring race by a narrow margin over Chicago's blond bull, Bobby Hull, he was wearing new knee braces—he has slipping kneecaps, of all things—which gave him renewed confidence in his ability to cut and twist.
It was Bathgate who scored first on a lightning-fast screened shot from 15 feet that Bassen never even saw. Fifteen minutes later Howe, clawing at the flypaper of a New York checking line sent out primarily to harass him and his line-mates, set up a goal for his wing, Claude La Forge, and the first period ended tied at 1-1.
For a brief moment in the second period the game seemed to be all Gordie's. Howe, like the Rangers' Harvey, has a genius for making the difficult appear to be routine. But in this period of this critical game, his extraordinary talent went on display with drums rolling and trumpets blaring. Detroit was short-handed because of a tripping penalty to La Forge when Howe took a pass at center ice and swept into the Rangers' zone. Only one defender stood in his path, and that man was Harvey, the greatest defenseman in hockey. Harvey braced for the rush by Howe, and the crowd waited tautly for the collision of these marvelous old warriors. Howe circled to Harvey's right, faked a cut-in and clambered past slightly off balance as Harvey gave him a practiced hip. Then Howe, who might have attempted a weak backhand, shifted his hands on his stick so deftly that few in the arena even saw him do it. Now suddenly a lefty, the old master flicked a fast forehand past Goalie Gump Worsley to score his 500th goal and give his team a 2-1 lead in the game for the playoffs.
Madison Square Garden crowds are not traditionally charitable to visiting sportsmen, but at this moment, faced with potential defeat and the death of playoff hopes, a New York crowd rose to its feet in an ovation for an honorable enemy. Sadly for his team, Howe's heroic and historic moment was shattered within seconds when Center Earl Ingarfield flipped in another goal for New York, to tie the score at 2-2 as the period ended. The exhausted fans had to wait almost 20 minutes more for the penalty shot that decided the game.
There is no rarer situation in hockey than the penalty shot. The last one seen in Madison Square Garden was in 1956, and Bathgate's was only the 10th to be awarded this season. There could be no reasonable doubt about the crime that caused it. New York's Dean Prentice was skating free toward the Detroit goal, when Bassen, either in panic or by accident, slid his stick over the ice to spoil what would have been a clear shot at the goal. Amid cries for blood in the New York stands, the penalty was called and Bathgate was assigned to make the shot. He responded with a flick of the wrist that could mean a minimum of $100,000 to the Rangers and as much as $300,000—if they go on to win the Stanley Cup. Each Ranger stands to collect at least an extra $1,000 as a result of the penalty shot.
Standing to lose at least as much as the Rangers stood to gain, the Red Wings were so numbed by the defeat that they went to Boston the following night and were beaten 4-0 by a sixth-place team that had not won a single game in the previous 20. Having missed the playoffs only once in the last 19 years (1959), the Wings had become accustomed to thinking of playoff loot as part of their normal salary, while to the hungry Rangers it was almost pie in the sky.
From Detroit General Manager Jack Adams on down, the Wings roared that Prentice, as the man fouled, should have taken the penalty shot. "The ref gave New York the game on a wrong call," declared Coach Sid Abel. "After that, I knew we were going to get rapped when we played Boston." It might have made no difference which of the two New Yorkers took the shot. Prentice, who ranks among the first 15 in the scoring list, is a pretty fair shooter himself. But this year's revised rules state clearly that the fouled player (i.e., Prentice) should take it, so there was ample grounds for the Red Wing beef. In any case, the decision once made was final.
By the end of the week, when Montreal, Toronto and Chicago had secured their places as first, second and third in the race, even Abel had managed to recapture more than a glimmer of hope. "You know what I caught myself thinking?" he asked SPORTS ILLUSTRATED Correspondent Pete Waldmeir. "What happens if we're tied up with New York again going into the last game. We play Montreal here and Chicago plays at New York. Now, Montreal, I tell myself, has first place all wrapped up, so Geoffrion and Beliveau will want to rest up for the playoffs. We win. Chicago, with third place clinched, has the same lack of incentive, but maybe Bobby Hull's going for his 50th goal. New York loses.... I'm getting wacky."