As the week began, the loosest player in the National Hockey League's tightest playoff race ever was Derek Sanderson, 23, center of the Boston Bruins. He awoke in a mod, round bed undreamed of in his street-fighting, high school-dropout days, picked up a phone from the white sheepskin rug and dialed his answering service. Little Joe, as Sanderson is sometimes called, had received no messages in the night from his idol, Big Joe Namath. Sanderson ran a brush over his razor-cut hair, put on a pair of flowered bell-bottoms and a shirt the color of orange sherbet and walked outside to his gold 1970 Continental Mark III. The plates read BRUINS 16. "They're welded on," said the Bruins' No. 16. "They'd be stolen every day if they weren't."
Derek drove to practice at Harvard's Watson Rink. In the dressing room Coach Harry Sinden announced a change of travel plans for Wednesday's game in New York: the Bruins would fly out that night instead of the next morning because of the air controllers' slowdown. Sanderson was annoyed. "I had a date with Jackie tonight," he said. "No, with Susan; I forgot. Jackie was the backup."
In Chicago that morning the Black Hawks' rookie defenseman Keith Magnuson (see cover) studied the bathroom mirror. He saw worry in the eyes looking back from his choir-boy face. He slicked down his Huck Finn mop of red hair and examined the bruise over his left eye. Keith Magnuson, 23, late of Denver University and wars with Michigan Tech and Cornell; overnight a man of heavy responsibility with a contender for the NHL championship. Boston a point ahead. Gotta beat Detroit next. Gotta stop Gordie Howe.
Magnuson shook his roommate, Cliff Koroll, awake and in a while drove somberly to practice in his sporty white 1970 Olds. Coach Billy Reay was having travel troubles, too. The Hawks would fly to Detroit that night, not the next afternoon. A couple of players were caught with their topcoats at the cleaners. Bobby Hull offered his to Gerry Pinder, who quickly discovered just how muscular the Golden Jet really is. The shoulders were down to here, the sleeves up to there. Bobby broke up. Magnuson managed a thin grin.
In New York, Sanderson checked in at the Bruins' hotel, then took a taxi to Bachelors III. Big Joe, former part owner, was not there. Sanderson had a fast meal and beat Sinden's 11:15 p.m. curfew. At noon the next day he was back at Bachelors III with Gary Doak, a Boston defenseman. and the brothers Orr, Bobby and 15-year-old Doug, who was on a school holiday and traveling with the Bruins as gatekeeper and alternate stick boy. They ate steaks and discussed the enemy. "The Rangers can't afford to lose tonight," said Bobby. "If they do, they'll probably miss the playoffs."
"They'll be gone, Bobby," said Derek.
Boston had not defeated an East Division team on the road all season, but that didn't bother Derek. "When we go out and hit the other team early," he said, "we usually win. We haven't been doing that on the road. But wait and see, there will be a lot of fights tonight."
Sanderson went to Times. Square to find the movie M*A*S*H, then to Madison Square Garden. During the pregame warmup the New York crowd waved rubber chickens at Sanderson and the Bruins. Boston's Wayne Cashman grabbed one and brought it into the dressing room. Sanderson took it and hung it up in the center of the room. "We'll show 'em who's chicken," he snarled.
In the game's first minute Cashman charged a Ranger and was sent to the penalty box. Trying to play roughhouse themselves, the Rangers were hit with penalties. Boston promptly scored a pair of power-play goals. Later in the first period big Orland Kurtenbach gave Sanderson a solid elbow to the jaw in a scuffle behind the Boston goal. "He was out to get me."" Derek said. "Just watch. We'll go at it before long."
Early in the second period Kurtenbach scored from close in to make it 2-1. "I should have been on the ice against his line," Sanderson said, "but I was having some trouble. I was back in the dressing room vomiting." Moments after that goal Sanderson and Kurtenbach had their fight. Derek, who was conceding two inches and 25 pounds, did not win, but he probably deserved a draw. He skated to the penalty box with his arms raised high. "Look at him," Ranger Coach Emile Francis was heard to say. "I'd like to punch him in the nose."
"That was my peace sign," Sanderson said.
Seven policemen moved near the box to protect the man of peace from the fans, who were waving the rubber chickens. Near the end of the period Boston was penalized again, giving the Rangers an excellent opportunity to tie the game. Sanderson, hockey's best penalty killer, skated onto the ice. Soon the puck went to the Rangers' Rod Gilbert, who lined up a slap shot. Sanderson recklessly skated in front of the puck, crouching to block it. The puck crashed against his shin guard and rebounded toward the New York goal. Eddie Giacomin, the Rangers' goaltender, moved after the puck but, realizing Sanderson would get there first, skated back into his crease.
Sanderson coolly moved in on Giacomin. A goal now, he knew, would probably crush the Rangers not only in this game but for the playoffs as well. Sanderson deftly pulled Giacomin to his left and slid the puck between the goalie's legs. The Bruins preserved their 3-1 margin the rest of the game.
"So Chicago's playing the Red Wings," Sanderson said afterward. "Let 'em play. I wouldn't go to see the Hawks if they were playing next door. We're both hot. The first team that gets skeptical will lose. I don't talk losing. It's winning with me, all winning."
In Detroit, Keith Magnuson caught the Boston score on TV and went nervously to bed. He was still a touch jittery next day, and shopping with Koroll didn't help. He had steak at 2 p.m. and tried to take a nap. Sleep would not come. At 5:30 he and the rest of the Hawks went by bus to Olympia Stadium.
The city of Detroit was caught up in a delirious case of playoff fever. Fans, starved for hockey as they used to know it in the glory days of the 1950s, snapped up all the standing-room tickets by early afternoon, and not even the oldest Howe-Lindsay-Abel worshipers could remember the last time that happened. As the game began traffic on Grand River Avenue was so jammed many fans missed the first 10 minutes.
Magnuson lost his jitters in a hurry, thanks to Gordie Howe. With a minute or so gone, Howe caught the rookie—and the referee—looking elsewhere and to the delight of the crowd jerked Magnuson's feet out from under him in front of the Chicago net. When he was only 10 Magnuson had sent away for an autographed picture of Howe, who obliged with, "Good luck and best wishes to my friend Keith." Nevertheless, in his first game at Olympia last November, Magnuson dropped his gloves to do battle with the man who never loses. Howe cuffed Magnuson's ears and turned away, muttering to Doug Jarrett, Keith's partner on defense, "He's a tough kid, but he'll learn."
Now Magnuson was playing spirited, flawless hockey, the kind that in just one season has made him the Hawks' chief fire-lighter. The teams wheeled through the first period without scoring, then the second. Chicago's rookie goalie Tony Esposito and Detroit's Roy Edwards were sensational. Deep into the third period the Hawks saw some daylight. Koroll put a nifty pass on Pit Martin's stick. Martin fired once, then gobbled up the rebound and flipped a backhand shot high into the net behind Edwards. Esposito made the 1-0 advantage stand up for his 14th shutout of the season—and that was a new NHL record.
When the buzzer finally sounded the goalie lunged after the puck but was overwhelmed by his teammates. They made sure he got it. "Usually I'm one of the first to congratulate Tony," Magnuson said, "but tonight I was one of the last. I was just limp. The pressure of that game was unbelievable. I kept seeing Howe tying us in the last 30 seconds, the way he beat us once earlier in the year. Pressure like this—I'm not used to it."
In the dressing room Esposito celebrated by nicking himself with a razor. Bobby Hull croaked, "When I was 21 it was a very good year...." He told Magnuson: "Maggy, this could be a very good year."
"This," said Derek Sanderson, "will be an ugly weekend." The prospect of back-to-back games with Detroit had etched a trace of skepticism on the non-skeptic. "They're the toughest team for us. The old men—Gordie Howe, Alex Delvecchio—get the job done. They're used to the pressure. They've played for first place and the cup before."
As Derek dressed for Saturday's matinee he did some self-psyching. "A hockey player must have three things planted in his head: hate, greed and jealousy," he declared. "He must hate the other guy, he must be greedy for the puck and he must be jealous when he loses. Hockey players without those traits don't survive too long around here."
In the uproarious Boston Garden there were more banners than usual, one of them hailing the officials as BUMS. BLIND. SICK. It was a reckless, high-scoring game and not one of Sanderson's better ones. Boston blew a 3-1 lead to the old smoothies, Howe and Delvecchio, and went behind 5-4 with seven minutes left. Orr came to the rescue with less than four minutes remaining, scoring his 31st goal of the season and raising his league-leading point total to 112. The Bruins should have done better at home; still they were grateful for the 5-5 tie and the point that put them two up on Chicago in the standings.
As the Hawks flew into Toronto Friday, Magnuson was worried again, this time about the crowds of pals and relatives who always show up at the hotel in that hallowed hockey city to barber with the players. He had another worry. "You open the paper," Magnuson said, "and there the Leafs are in last place. It takes a lot to get up for them. But now's the time to make hay."
Haying was only so-so Saturday night in Maple Leaf Gardens as the Hawks and Leafs played a 1-1 tie. Toronto was loose, Chicago flat. Magnuson survived a heavy check by Bob Pulford that smashed his face against the boards. "Really, all that hurts is my lips," Keith said later.
"If anyone's got tough lips," said Koroll, "it's you."
The Bruins arrived in Detroit Saturday night as the Chicago game was ending. There was a rush to turn on television sets. "Chicago and Toronto a 1-1 final," Sanderson heard Eddie Westfall yell.
"I'm going to kiss the Toronto goalie," Sanderson announced. "We're still in first place, right? Anyway, I'd rather play on the road than in Boston. I go better when I get booed. I never have any problem busting people."
Derek busted four or five Red Wings Sunday afternoon in a game of furious action but hit the goalpost late in the third period with what might have been the winning shot. The final score: 2-2.
Back in Chicago for a return game Sunday night with the Leafs, Magnuson gave earnest thought to Billy Reay's stern warning not to take unnecessary penalties. "I get mad out there and I'm not afraid to fight anyone," he said. "But we've come too far for one individual to louse things up now." Louse them up he did not. Gerry Pinder scored goal No. 1 for Chicago and then little Tough Lips ignited a picture play that all but broke the Leafs' spirit. He caught the Leafs napping by threading a perfect pass out to Jim Pappin at the Chicago blue line, who whipped it to Pinder busting into the Toronto end, who scored while falling down. Bobby Hull added two pretty goals and Tony Esposito had his 15th shutout.
And so it was that the desperate week ended in deadlock, with a nervous redhead and a swinging dude teed a mile high for the season's last three games.