At sundown last Saturday the number of hours remaining in the National Hockey League's frantic East Division race had dwindled to a very few, and it was high time for a moment's reflection. The possibilities contained in the final games of the weekend were mind-mangling. One of four teams—Boston, Chicago, Detroit or Montreal—could finish in first place. Boston and Chicago could finish as low as fourth, while Detroit or Montreal could drop to fifth and miss out on the Stanley Cup playoffs entirely. New York, meanwhile, was in fifth place but could wind up as high as third. Also possible were two-team ties for the championship between Boston-Chicago, Boston-Detroit, Detroit-Chicago, Detroit-Montreal or Montreal-Boston, and three-team ties among Boston-Chicago-Detroit or Boston-Detroit-Montreal. What madness.
Derek Sanderson, the mod center of the Boston Bruins, assessed the situation perfectly. "These two games this weekend," he said, "will mean the difference between spending the summer on Cape Cod or on the Italian Riviera. And I'd go big on the Italian Riviera."
The top contenders for first place, of course, were the Bruins and the Chicago Black Hawks, who were tied for the lead with 95 points—two more than Detroit, three more than Montreal and five more than New York. Boston was favored—at least on paper—because of its home-and-home series with the last-place Toronto Maple Leafs, and though Boston had not won a regular-season game at Maple Leaf Gardens since 1965, the Bruins were, as they say, hungry. Meanwhile the Black Hawks would have to play home-and-home with the defending champion Montreal Canadiens, who never lose both games of such a series. Do they, Toe Blake?
The Bruins were loose and talkative as they drove to Saturday night's game. Center Phil Esposito, the league's No. 2 scorer behind Bobby Orr, had injured his back in Friday's practice and was a doubtful starter, but this would not be a weekend for excuses. "Tell the driver," said Coach Harry Sinden, "to stop in the Italian section and get me a couple of guys Esposito's size to play tonight. They got to be left shots, too."
Esposito did play, however, and scored after only 2:31 of the first period. Seven minutes later, after goals by Orr, Ken Hodge and Sanderson, Boston led 4-0. "Let them show that score in Montreal," the Boston players thought. "Yeah, that will show 'em."
They did show the Boston score at the Montreal Forum, but the Black Hawks never looked at it. Chicago trounced Montreal 4-1, while the Bruins defeated Toronto 4-2, and the two clubs still were tied for the lead.
"Chicago beat us and beat us good," said the Canadiens' Bobby Rousseau. Jean Beliveau, captain of the Canadiens said, "They handled us perfectly. They had two men on the puck carrier every time." In the late moments of the game Bobby Hull had a wide smile on his face as he stole the puck from Montreal forwards. At one point, with an empty net in front of him, Hull passed up a certain goal to maintain possession of the puck and kill the clock.
Rousseau offered another explanation for the Black Hawks' astounding success this year: "Last year, remember, they finished in sixth place, and a man named Dissension played left wing for them. I noticed that when Dennis Hull got his 100th goal tonight he skated over and gave the puck to [Coach] Billy Reay to keep for him. You always give the puck to the trainer in a case like that. That must mean there is more togetherness between Reay and his players than anyone can ever imagine."
On the Bruins' flight after Saturday's game, Sinden and Orr applauded the Hawks' victory. "No complaints from me," the coach said. "We went into Montreal last Wednesday and the Canadiens bombed us. Chicago went in there tonight and bombed the Canadiens. They did what we didn't do." Orr agreed, "We didn't do it."
The Red Wings, who had missed the playoffs the last three seasons, drank champagne Saturday night after routing New York 6-2 to assure themselves a position no lower than third. Led by the Medicare twins, Gordie Howe and Alex Delvecchio, and a rejuvenated Frank Mahovlich, the Wings lost only two of 18 games in their run for a playoff spot.
Howe scored the decisive goals in the win over New York, and after the game he stood in a shower stall tilting a glass of the wine. "Way to go, leader!" yelled Garry Unger, who is half Howe's age. Howe laughed. After playing three games in four nights he was very tired, and there would be four games in five nights during the first round of the playoffs. "Do you think if I put on an act they'd let me stay home and not play in New York tomorrow?" he asked.
As the clock ticked on in this cloud-cuckoo-land of suspense the Rangers were left with one improbable route into the playoffs. This path was made possible by hockey's tie-breaking rules as applied to the season's final standings. If two teams tie for a position in points, the one having the fewer victories drops a notch lower. If the teams have the same number of victories, the loser is the one with the fewer goals. If each has scored the same number of goals, the category of goals-against becomes decisive.
The staggering Rangers came off their Saturday defeat still two points—one victory—behind the Canadiens. A victory over Detroit Sunday afternoon back on the friendly ice of Madison Square Garden would bring them even with Montreal in points and wins, but they would have to score like crazy to overcome the Canadiens' five-goal advantage in the scoring column—and, of course, Montreal would have to lose its last game to Chicago.
Up from oblivion rose the Rangers with one of the most remarkable barrages of shots ever laid on a hockey net: four goals in the first period, three in the second, two in the third. And then in the last four minutes, and with 17,250 hysterics screaming "More! More! More!" Coach Emile Francis pulled Goalie Eddie Giacomin intermittently in order to put another forward on the ice. The Rangers got no more, but they had plenty already, ultimately winning 9-5, and you can imagine the fear in Montreal as the Canadiens faced the now very likely prospect of missing the playoffs for the first time in 22 years.
As the evening games began, the Bruins felt there was no way they could lose to the outmanned Leafs on home ice, but they were painfully aware that even as they did Chicago probably would win, too, and thus beat them for the East Division championship by virtue of having more victories. And it was no easy win for the Bruins. Davey Keon of the Leafs popped in a long shot late in the first period. That goal was recouped by Boston's John McKenzie early in the second (with an assist by Bobby Orr, recently turned 22, who thus completed his run for the scoring title with 120 points), but it was not until the last period that pesky Derek Sanderson scored from a melee in front of the net to put Boston ahead. That proved to be the winning goal. Ken Hodge added another.
In the dressing room all the Bruins except Eddie Westfall poured champagne from bottles Orr had salvaged from his birthday party. Westfall swigged at a Coke. "I won't drink champagne until we're No. 1," he vowed.
At that moment the Hawks and Canadiens had finished two periods of a game that was to become even more bizarre than the one in New York, and Chicago led 3-2. With just over nine minutes left in the final period the Hawks went ahead 5-2 on Pit Martin's third goal—and Montreal Coach Claude Ruel started pulling Goalie Rogatien Vachon every time the Canadiens got possession of the puck. A debacle ensued. The Hawks scored five more goals, the Canadiens none. For the first time in history there would be no Canadian-based team in the Stanley Cup playoffs. For the first time since 1967 Chicago had a title.
"We're No. 1!" the 21,000 Hawk fans in Chicago Stadium shouted over and over again in the closing minutes. "We're No. 1!"
"We've done one thing," said Billy Reay, rather calmly. "Now we've got to do something else."
Ah, yes, the playoffs were to start in midweek. Funny how nobody felt in the mood to count the hours until they began.