It is one of the rites of spring in New York, like dodging potholes in the streets and mailing a deposit for the summer cottage out in the Hamptons. As the snow melts each year the Rangers skate boldly into the Stanley Cup playoffs and then skate quickly and quietly out of them. Most seasons the Rangers do not even stay around town long enough to compete with opening day at the baseball parks and the golf courses. In fact, since they last won the cup 32 years ago, the Rangers have survived the first round of the playoffs only twice. And now—horrors—here were those dastardly Montreal Canadiens waiting to ravage them once again.
Why pick on New York? Couldn't the Canadiens pull a John Lindsay for once and drop out? Weren't 10 Stanley Cups in 16 years enough? What else did they want, the city? They hadn't lost a playoff series to a team from the United States in 10 years. And look what they did to Boston and Chicago last spring.
Funny thing, though, despite the great Hab Hex the Rangers thought they were going to beat the Canadiens. And all things considered, even with Center Jean Ratelle, their most important player, still sidelined because of a cracked bone above his right ankle, the time was right. No longer did Montreal have Jean Beliveau to dazzle them or Mean John Ferguson to brutalize them. Sure, Ken Dry-den would be in goal for Montreal, but the Rangers had lost only one game to the Canadiens all year—a meaningless 6-5 skatefest the last day of the season—and had scored almost live goals a game against Dryden while the rest of the league had averaged two. Before the first game Wednesday night, scalpers were getting $120 for a pair of $13 tickets that offered both a terrible view of the ice and the fragrant aroma of circus elephants, compliments of Ringling Bros, and Barnum & Bailey.
Inside Madison Square Garden the Canadiens easily found the way to their dressing room by following the circus signs that said CLOWNS. Coach Scotty Bowman was nervous as his players dressed. "It's strange," he said, looking out onto the ice. "New York beat us all year, and we beat Boston and Boston killed New York. The only way we can beat New York now is to play like Boston does. We've got to stop the Rangers at center ice and not let them get their passing game going. But my guys don't play like that. The forwards don't come back and check, and the defense-men back in on Dryden. If we play like that we won't be around very long."
For his part, Emile Francis, the little boss of the Rangers, was preparing a surprise for Bowman and Yvan Cournoyer, the speedy right wing who scored 47 goals for the Canadiens during the season. Francis realized that none of the Rangers he had used regularly was quick enough to derail Cournoyer on his swoops around the rink. The only Ranger who could accelerate with Cournoyer was Gene Carr, a 20-year-old rookie who was playing in Flin Flon, Manitoba a year ago. Normally Francis takes the George Allen approach to youth: he uses his kids only as a last resort. Indeed, for the playoffs he had reacquired two of the Rangers' old smoothies: Ron Stewart, 39, and Phil Goyette, 38. But now he was going to have Carr check Cournoyer, or at least try to.
At the start Bowman felt he had to assign an exclusive shadow to only one Ranger, Left Wing Vic Hadfield, who had scored 50 goals. The obvious choice was Rejean (Peanuts) Houle, the pesky wing who covered Bobby Hull so effectively in last year's cup. However, there is one basic difference between Hull and Hadfield. Hull rarely resorts to physical retaliation over a checker's attentions. Hadfield does. If Houle planned to shackle Hadfield the way he harassed Hull—an elbow here, a stick there—then his body eventually would bear some marks, too. Nothing illegal, of course. Just fun and games. As it developed, Peanuts Houle took an early penalty in the first game for slashing Hadfield, and after that he was just plain ineffective.
Until this season Hadfield had never scored more than 26 goals. The instant he got the puck on his curved stick he would fire it. Occasionally it went in; most of the time it landed in Section B, Row C, Seat 4 of the mezzanine. "I always got a lot of oohs and ahs," Hadfield said, "but I didn't get many goals." So Hadfield changed his style and learned to sneak around behind the defensemen and wait for crisp passes from Ratelle and Right Wing Rod Gilbert. Of his 50 goals, at least 35 were scored from less than five feet away. "He scored 10 goals against us during the year—seven or eight against me," Dryden said. "The longest was no more than four feet. Nowadays most players prefer to shoot from 40 feet out or farther, and here's Hadfield with 10 goals that probably don't add up to 40 feet."
The score was tied 1-1 near the end of the first period, and there was Hadfield on Dryden's doorstep as Bobby Rousseau, who replaced Ratelle at center, stole the puck in the corner. "Bobby!" Hadfield screamed in a voice that could be heard 40 rows away. Rousseau obediently drilled the puck across the crease and Hadfield fired it behind Dryden. "Another four-footer," the goaltender mumbled.
Frank Mahovlich tied the score 2-2 early in the third period, and for a time it appeared that the teams would skate into overtime. Enter J.C. Tremblay. After Dryden he is Montreal's make-or-break player. On some nights he is J.C. Superstar; on others he is J.C. Snowshoes. In Montreal he usually is the former; on the road, the latter. As one Canadien player said, "Sometimes J.C. forgets to pack his courage when we go on the road."
Yet it was Tremblay who risked his life to save others from a hotel fire in St. Louis this year, a fire from which Bowman himself narrowly escaped.
"You wouldn't believe it was J.C. up there dangling from a ladder," a teammate said, "but it was. I can't tell you how courageous he was."
After a strong start against New York, Tremblay somehow got stuck in reverse and spent the rest of the game skating backward on Dryden. With slightly more than seven minutes remaining, Tremblay had the puck in the corner to Dryden's left. "I started to make my deke on Gilbert," he said later, "and the puck got away from me." It rolled to Rousseau. Again Hadfield was parked at Dryden's crease. "Bobby!" he yelled. The puck was there in a flash. Dryden was beaten on another four-footer and the Rangers won the game 3-2.
"We've got to watch Hadfield," Tremblay said. "That's the trouble," said another Canadien. "We've been watching him."
The following night rookie Guy Lafleur gave the Canadiens a 1-0 lead, but in rapid order Defenseman Dale Rolfe and Stewart both scored from the goal mouth to put the Rangers ahead.
Later Tremblay took a puck in the face and went off for 10 stitches, so Terry Harper came on to replace him. Harper rivals Chicago's Keith Magnuson for the annual gamest player award. He will challenge and tight anyone, and though he usually loses, he does inspire his more reluctant mates to greater efforts. When Harper appeared, bodies began to crash, and suddenly Hadfield lost his mortgage on the patch of ice to Dryden's right. Playing their best hockey since the start of the series, the Canadiens tied the score in the second period and continued to dominate play until Harper and Hadfield clashed in the last minute of the period.
Harper was sitting on the bench when Hadfield skated past and brushed him with his stick. "Because of my injured thumb I can't control my stick very well," Hadfield explained, smiling. "When I skated past their bench and got near Harper, the stick got away from me." At the next whistle Harper leaped from the bench, skated toward Hadfield and unloaded a left elbow, but it missed. The two jawed for several minutes, until Francis removed Hadfield and sent out Glen Sather, his No. 1 disturber. "I told Sather to whisper sweet nothings in Harper's ear," Francis said. "I told him to tell Harper what a nice fellow he is."
Sather, who spent one summer taking graduate courses in child psychology at Memphis State University, told Harper he liked the way he parted his hair. Up came the elbows. Up came the sticks. And both were penalized. "That Sather, he's a master," Francis said. "Hey, we're all kids, aren't we?" was what Sather said.
Sather's enterprise obviously stirred the Rangers, for they roared out for the third period and scored three times to take the game 5-2. The winning goal came only 20 seconds into the period when Bill Fairbairn beat Dryden with a weak backhander from about 15 feet. Dryden blamed himself for the goal. "I lost track of the net," he said. "I made a terrible play. No excuses."
Carr dominated Cournoyer, holding him to only two shots, but the Canadiens were able to stymie Hadfield, too, thanks mostly to Harper's body bending. Goalie Eddie Giacomin played solidly for the Rangers in both games and New York's penalty killing was spectacular, with Fairbairn and Walt Tkaczuk handling the puck so effectively that the Canadians had no shots at Giacomin during four of their eight power plays.
As the series switched to Montreal, Bowman mapped a few changes: he planned to get Cournoyer away from Carr. He would have Henri Richard and Claude Larose, two of his most industrious skaters, play head-to-head against Tkaczuk and Fairbairn, respectively. "The only way to stop them is to outwork them if you can," Bowman said.
The scalpers in Montreal were getting only $60 for a pair of $10 tickets as the teams lined up Saturday night for what Francis predicted would be a physical game. "I haven't told my guys to hit and I haven't told them not to hit," Bowman said. The Canadiens hit. Peter Mahovlich dazed Fairbairn with a vicious elbow, then Jacques Laperriere smashed Bruce MacGregor into the boards. Hadfield came onto the ice and gave Harper a hard shot, and three Canadiens hacked away at Hadfield in return. Jacques Lemaire slammed Brad Park into the boards, then Peter Mahovlich slashed Fairbairn. Before the period was 16 minutes old the Canadiens had been given 10 minutes in penalties, and they had to play almost nine of those first 16 minutes shorthanded.
Miraculously they escaped, thanks to Dryden. For many minutes the Rangers passed the puck back and forth along the crease. It looked like a Ping-Pong game with Dryden the judge. Ken robbed Hadfield, then Goyette, then Gilbert, then Tkaczuk, then Gilbert again. "I think the Rangers just got tired from passing the puck around and didn't have any energy left when they were ready to shoot," Dryden said. Francis kept shaking his head. "I have never in all my days seen so many passes go through the crease without getting into the net," he said.
Once past that barrage the Canadiens played a style of hockey they had not exhibited in New York. Tremblay was marvelous, having one of his J.C. Superstar nights. Montreal defensemen continually stopped the Rangers at the blue line, and in the second period the Canadiens broke through on the power play as Frank Mahovlich converted a perfect pass from brother Pete. Later in the period Marc Tardif backhanded a 15-footer past Giacomin after Rod Seiling had blocked his original shot.
Montreal made one defensive lapse in the period when Ron Stewart sneaked behind the defense, took a pass from Sather and beat Dryden cleanly, but after that Dryden and Tremblay kept the situation under control, and the Canadiens won 2-1.
"It's pretty simple," Harper said afterward. "When we don't let them stand around and play with the puck, we win. When we are spectators, we lose."
Back at the Forum on Sunday night the teams went on a scoring binge. First to hit was Fairbairn for New York, then Rousseau, then Lemaire for the Canadiens, followed by Rousseau once more, Montreal's Tardif and the man who wanted to reclaim his old property adjacent to Dryden, Vic Hadfield. This was all in the first period and the Rangers led 4-2. No muscle to speak of was utilized by either side, possibly because the teams were playing their fourth game in five nights and were willing to let the sticks talk.
Montreal gained a little in the second period with a goal by Cournoyer and got another in the third from Harper to tie it up and lift the Forum's lid. But with five minutes remaining one Pete Stemkowski stole the puck from guess who—yep, Tremblay—and beat Dryden. An empty-net goal made it 6-4 and a 3-1 lead in the series for little old New York.
Ah, spring. For Manhattan it was beginning to be all rite.