Can Wally Harkness skate? Well, even if Wally uses double runners some National Hockey League team ought to sign him to a contract before the Stanley Cup playoffs begin next week, for no one in hockey history—not Bobby Orr, not Bobby Hull, not even Jean Beliveau—ever got the cup as easily as Harkness did. One morning last December, Harkness, a Toronto policeman, was aroused by the barking of his dog and the screeching of tires. He dashed outside and there, perched atop a mound of snow in his yard, was the cup, compliments of the thieves who had stolen it from the Hockey Hall of Fame.
Stealing the cup from the Boston Bruins in the playoffs will be more difficult. Powered by Orr and Phil Esposito, they were on the verge of setting some 35 records, most of them in the offensive categories, as they neared the end of the regular schedule, and unless one of their playoff opponents produces the perfect goaltender—that is, someone four feet high and six feet wide—they should win the cup for the second straight year. "Hey, all the records, all the awards mean nothing if you don't win the cup, too," Orr said. "That's all we want now."
All the Bruins' main rivals—Chicago, Montreal, New York and Toronto—enter the playoffs with nagging little problems. Their secondary opponents—St. Louis, Minnesota and Philadelphia—simply are not good enough, and a new cup format helps the expansion teams not at all. The NHL has acted to end the mismatches that have characterized the final series of cup play since the expansion of 1967-68. No longer will there be an automatic West finalist. Barring unexpected 11th-hour changes in the standings, in the first round, starting next week, Boston plays Montreal, New York plays Toronto, Chicago plays Minnesota and St. Louis plays Philadelphia in best-of-seven-game series. Then in the second round comes the big difference: the Boston-Montreal winner will cross over and play the survivor of the St. Louis-Philadelphia series, while the New York-Toronto winner will play either Chicago or Minnesota. Chances are the West's expansion teams thus will be kaput after round two. After that the two survivors—most likely Boston and Chicago—will play for the cup itself.
More than anything else, though, the 1971 playoffs signal some excitement after perhaps the most boring season in the history of the NHL. The league's first attempt at a balanced schedule, in which all the teams played six games against each other, failed miserably by producing too much one-sided hockey. Spectators accustomed to brisk Montreal-New York or Chicago-Boston games 14 times a season could not accept Oakland and L.A., for example, coming to town as often as the biggies.
Boston, which won more games this year than any team in history, skates into the playoffs with a new image. "We're the Big, Good Bruins now," Bobby Orr says. What Orr means is that Boston no longer has to beat teams physically to beat them on the scoreboard. "We can play the game any way the other team wants," says Tom Johnson, the Bruin coach. "You want finesse, we'll give you finesse. You want a rough game, we'll give you a rough game. You want defense, we'll give you defense. All we need," he adds, "is a little cooperation from the other team."
Cooperation may come hard for Montreal, which has won 10 straight cup series from the Bruins. "This one will come down to the goaltending, I think," says John Ferguson, the Canadiens' tough left wing. Little Rogatien Vachon, the Canadiens' No. 1 goaltender, was inconsistent during the season and if he starts poorly Coach Al MacNeil will try 6'4" 210-pound Ken Dryden, the Cornell graduate who plays for the Canadiens between law classes at McGill.
"I played against a lot of the Bruins when they were losers," MacNeil says. "They didn't start winning until they got a few fantastic players, like Orr. One year doesn't make a dynasty."
While Chicago should have little trouble disposing of the Minnesota North Stars, the Black Hawks have one problem: Gerry Desjardins, the No. 2 goal-tender, broke his arm two weeks ago and probably will miss all the cup games. As a result Tony Esposito will not have an adequate backup man.
The St. Louis-Philadelphia series matches teams that can't score goals but, on the other hand, do not give up many, either. This probably will be the roughest series in the first round. The Blues' Ernie Wakely has been erratic in goal, and unless ancient Glenn Hall plays well for the Blues they could lose a playoff series to an expansion rival for the first time. Philadelphia still seems shocked by the trade of Goaltender Bernie Parent to Toronto, but if Goalie Doug Favell has fully recovered from his recent case of amnesia the Flyers might upset the Blues.
The Maple Leafs represent the best upset possibility in the first round. The Leafs have the top goaltending team in the league—42-year-old Jacques Plante and the 25-year-old Parent—and Toronto's veteran centers, Dave Keon and Norm Ullman, are superior checkers whose harassing tactics usually lead to at least one breakaway apiece each game. Finally, Bob Baun has straightened away the young Toronto defensemen after a disastrous start; the Leafs floundered in last place for two months. "Baun is our leader," says Ricky Ley, a 22-year-old defenseman. "We know that he's played on broken legs. That makes us give a little more."
They will be giving against hockey's mystery team—New York. The Rangers should win the Vezina Trophy for the best goals-against average, already have won more games than ever before—and still are finishing second. During one stretch they won nine games and tied one but still lost a point to the Bruins, who won 10 straight. They have bombed out of the playoffs the last four years, mostly because the forwards could not score enough goals and Goalie Eddie Giacomin finally became too tired to stop the other team's shooters. So this year Coach Emile Francis rested Giacomin extensively. Still, even if Giacomin plays his best, the Rangers do not seem to have that one player who will rally them at a time of crisis. They do not have a star.
So they could use a little serendipity—like a Wally Harkness, maybe.