You all remember New York, New York, that wonderful town, where the Bronx is up and the Rangers are down? Some changes have been made, and not to the Bronx. As the Rangers chased a good Chicago team out of the Stanley Cup semifinals last week even Emile Francis, the team's little dictator, permitted himself a thin, prudent smile. It is said that only his wife has actually seen Francis smile in the eight years since he took over the team, and then in the privacy of the home.
More startling, from a man thought to be without a sense of humor, Francis cracked wise, after a fashion, to Coach Billy Reay of the Black Hawks. The Rangers had swept the first two games on enemy ice and were back in Madison Square Garden, which they shared with circus animals and those two-legged wonders, the Knicks, when Francis bumped into Reay in a corridor. "What's that, your new game plan?" asked Reay, pointing to the clipboard Francis was carrying. "Yeah," said Francis, "I think we'll work the dunk against you tonight." Piling irony upon sarcasm, Francis offered Reay a guide to the ticket office. "The circus is here," he said, "and if someone doesn't show you the way, the lions will get you, or the tigers, or the elephants."
His Hawks should have been so lucky. Reay survived his trip through the jungle but his players were being devoured, even though they had begun the series as the fresher, healthier team. They had rested for a week while the Rangers were finishing up the Montreal Canadiens in the quarterfinals. No Hawk was hurt and the Rangers were still without their best player, Center Jean Ratelle, who had broken a bone above his right ankle. Then there was that litany of Ranger failure which all the suffering fans knew by heart: no cup since 1940, no first-place finish since 1942 and no appearance in the cup finals since 1950.
In the first Chicago game Goaltender Ed Giacomin, whose series against Montreal had been the only truly superior one of his cup career, performed spectacularly and the Rangers beat the Hawks 3-2. But the injury hex struck again. Giacomin hurt a knee late in the game when the brutish Hawk defenseman Jerry Korab careened into him during a scramble at the goal mouth, and Defenseman Jim Neilson, who had been playing the best hockey of his career, broke the ring finger of his right hand when he stopped a shot by Dennis Hull. "Once again we have the excuses," said one Ranger, "but now is the time to forget about excuses and work harder."
At the time Francis did not reveal how serious the injuries were. Giacomin was questionable for the second game, he admitted, but he said X rays of Neilson's finger were negative. Neilson's finger was broken all along; the X rays had been positive. Like most coaches, Francis gives away no important intelligence except at gunpoint.
As Gilles Villemure replaced Giacomin in goal for the second game the Hawks altered their strategy. The first game had been relatively tame, but now Reay had Korab, his No. 1 bouncer, deck every Ranger he encountered. Sometimes Korab did it legally; sometimes he went to the penalty box. The big thing, though, was that some Rangers, particularly Gary Doak, who was replacing Neilson, and, of all people, Rod Gilbert, repeatedly whacked back at Korab. Three times the Hawks took one-goal leads but each time the Rangers tied the score. Then, with seven minutes left, Gilbert, who has looked lost without Ratelle to make plays for him, scored his second goal of the game, beating Tony Esposito from 35 feet, and the Rangers won again, although not without some nervous moments.
In last year's Chicago-New York series the Hawks twice beat the Rangers when Bobby Hull, stationed 25 feet away and dead on the goal, scored directly from face-offs that his centers won cleanly from New York's Walt Tkaczuk. Last week was different. Four times in the closing minutes Tkaczuk beat Christian Bordeleau for face-offs as Hull, his trigger cocked, waited hungrily for the puck.
Tkaczuk, a lad of 24 out of the character-building gold mines of Canada, was in a slump during the first half of the regular season, although it was not completely his fault. Francis tried 12 different left wings on the line with Tkaczuk and Bill Fairbairn, and the constant shifts disrupted the continuity a center needs to function effectively. Also, with the Ratelle-Gilbert-Vic Hadfield line setting scoring records, Tkaczuk did not get on the ice as frequently as he had in previous years. Then Francis made Tkaczuk and Fairbairn his regular penalty killers. The extra work obviously stimulated Walt. "I became more aggressive," he said, "and when Ratelle got hurt I realized I'd have to do even more." Against Montreal in the playoffs Tkaczuk was New York's most consistent forward. He scored the winning goal in the final game.
Still, he remembered what had happened in Chicago last year. "Those two face-offs taught me how important total concentration is," he said. "A split half second is the difference. Now what I try to do is get the jump on the other guy. Sometimes—too many times—I'm so anxious that I jump the drop and the official tosses me out of the circle. But that tells you something, too. It tells you that you're alert."
The two games in Chicago also clearly pointed up basic problems that the Black Hawks had managed to camouflage from the expansion teams during their romp to the West Division championship. These weaknesses showed up against good teams like New York, Boston and Montreal and, as a result, the Black Hawks won only three of the 18 games they played against them.
For one thing, it was obvious that the Hawks still did not have a strong center making plays for Bobby Hull, who was shut out in the two Chicago games. Bordeleau, the latest candidate, repeatedly hesitated too long before he passed the puck to the breaking Hull, and as a result Bobby rarely received it while he was in full flight. Hull did manage to fire 13 shots at Giacomin and Villemure during those games, but most of them were harmless blasts from practically impossible angles.
Rather than assign one specialist to Hull, a tactic that failed last spring, Francis split the job between Bill Fairbairn and Bruce MacGregor. However, as Defenseman Brad Park said, "Covering Hull is not a one-man deal. No player can do that job alone; he needs help." Park and the other New York defensemen helped Fairbairn and MacGregor stymie Hull by meeting him at the blue line and then forcing him against the boards. "Bobby always gets his shots," Park said. "All we wanted to do was make him shoot from bad angles."
Also, the Black Hawks did not have a good left wing to work with Center Stan Mikita, who prefers to set up his linemates rather than take shots himself, and they did not have a steady defense as long as Pat Stapleton and Bill White, their best men, were paired together.
So for the third game last Thursday in New York, Reay decided to double-shift the Hull brothers, playing them not only on their regular line but also on Mikita's line every other shift. He also broke up his defense—playing Stapleton with Keith Magnuson and White with Doug Jarrett—and switched from Esposito to lanky Gary Smith in goal.
For a time the changes worked, as Dennis Hull scored twice on Villemure for the Hawks. The Rangers, however, refused to bend. They got goals from Pete Stemkowski and MacGregor and went ahead 3-2 midway in the second period on one by Dale Rolfe. Thanks to the big save Villemure made on Dennis Hull's breakaway early in the third period, they won the game by that score.
Sunday night seemed almost routine as the Rangers completed their sweep with Center Bobby Rousseau getting two goals in a 6-2 victory. Bobby Hull scored his first of the series—too late.
"One thing I think we've done," said Brad Park in a reflective moment, "is destroy the superstar myth. Maybe we don't have any superstars, as everyone tells us, but we've got depth—and we've got Emile. He seems to be coaching harder now than ever. Sure, he's still working us every day, but he is working himself 10 times as hard."
In the meantime Bobby Orr's Boston Bruins were working over the St. Louis Blues, going ahead three games to none Sunday afternoon. A beautiful collision lay ahead.