Who could forget their last tangos in the Stanley Cup? The vulgar signs in New York and the bestial banners in Boston. The guided missiles—half-filled beer cans, raw eggs, rubber chickens, golf balls—from the stands. The brawls in the seats. The fights on the ice. The near-riot that produced a record 174-minutes in penalties in one game.
So forget. Last week the Bruins and the Rangers, hockey's bitterest rivals, squared off once more, this time in a Round One rematch of last year's final Stanley Cup series that Boston won in six rough games—and opened a credibility gap that may take years to close.
The Bruins are favored, right? They are coming off two recent regular-season victories over the demoralized Rangers. They have lost Gerry Cheevers, their nifty Stanley Cup goaltender, to the WHA, but at the last hour they have plucked 44-year-old Jacques Plante from Toronto—the man who invented modern goaltending by roaming away from the net to steer pucks to his teammates. By winning seven of his eight games with Boston, Plante has led the Bruins past New York into second place in the NHL East, thereby assuring them the home-ice advantage should the opening series go seven games.
Under cover of darkness Emile Francis, boss man of the Rangers, whisked his players into Fitchburg, Mass., 70 miles from Boston, for what he hoped would be a super psych job in a secret hideaway. It had been a trying season for Francis and the Rangers. Acting under orders from Madison Square Garden's executive suite, Francis had more than doubled New York's 20-player payroll to an astonomical $1.6 million in the hope that the Rangers might buy the Stanley Cup that had eluded them for 33 years. But as the Rangers made their dismal finish reverberations were heard from the Garden's moneymen. They were beginning to second-guess Francis' moves on the ice. The grumbling came into the open one night when the Philadelphia Flyers tied the Rangers 2-2 on a goal made while Francis was caught with the wrong players—or so the people upstairs thought—on the ice during a New York power play.
"We've got to get ourselves straightened away mentally," Francis said. Much to his displeasure, everyone in Massachusetts seemed to know that the Rangers would be doing their thinking in Fitchburg. WELCOME NY RANGERS read the message on the marquee of the Thunderbird Motel, and the next day hundreds of local youngsters milled around the entrance to the rink where the Rangers were holding their secret practices.
Francis had one overriding goal: to contain Bobby Orr, the game's most commanding player, whose often-wounded knee was bothering him no more. After studying films of most New York-Boston games of the past few seasons, Francis concluded that the only way to arrest Orr was to check him with two players, not the usual single shadow. Orr routinely beats one-on-one coverage by either skating blithely away or by working give-and-go pass patterns. Two-on-one coverage against Orr, Francis figured, might be a possible solution, at least until Orr devised some new escape routes.
As the second part of his game plan, Francis ordered his players to fire away at the aging Plante from anywhere on the ice. There is a feeling among NHL coaches that Plante's old eyes do not pick up the puck clearly until it is within about 30 feet of his goal. "If we shoot from the red line," said the Rangers' Vic Hadfield, "it won't be too close." The Rangers also wanted Plante to handle the puck frequently, realizing that the harder he worked the quicker he would tire.
Unaware of Francis' diabolical scheme, the hockey world awaited a Ranger massacre in Boston Garden. Funny thing happened. By following Francis' formula to the letter, the Rangers checked the Bruins to a standstill, threw a barrage from long range and short at a very shaky Plante and routed the Bruins 6-2. Orr spent much of the night futilely seeking new avenues out of the Boston zone, and when he did get the puck to a teammate one of the Rangers quickly took it away. The Phil Esposito-Wayne Cashman-Ken Hodge line, which led the NHL in scoring, did not get a shot against Ranger Goalie Eddie Giacomin until the game was nearly over. For Plante, every Ranger shot was an adventure. Three of New York's six goals were scored on blasts from at least 40 feet away.
Boston now compliments Plante for gallantry but replaces him with a younger stick and glove. Correct? Wrong.
Despite the private wishes of the Boston players, Coach Bep Guidolin played Plante again in the second game in Boston. He was obviously very tired. Time and again he called the officials to his net and asked them to repair the ice around it and he repeatedly delayed play to talk with his defensemen. Nothing Plante did deterred the Rangers though, and they played an even stronger game than they had the night before, winning 4-2. "How do you improve on perfection?" asked Derek Sanderson, who had jumped from the Bruins to the WHA and back again.
Worse yet for the Bruins, Esposito—hockey's highest scorer and a man thought to be indestructible after missing only six games in eight years—was in the hospital and finished until next season. New York Defenseman Ron Harris gave him a hip as he tried to burst through a crowd of Rangers, and Esposito crumpled to the ice holding his right knee. Thirty-six hours later he underwent surgery to repair a ligament.
"It doesn't look very good for us, does it?" Orr asked. No, it did not. Esposito sent his teammates a telegram: GOOD LUCK I KNOW YOU CAN DO IT DON'T FORGET TO COME SEE ME ESPO. Mere whistling in the dark, surely. With two consecutive games coming up in New York, the Rangers obviously were ready to obliterate the Bruins. Some New York fans, in fact, organized a pool on the exact minute the first defeated Bruin would shake hands with a victorious Ranger after the fourth game. "We have them where we've never had them before," the Rangers' Brad Park said. "Now we can't let them go."
In goal Saturday night the Bruins played Eddie Johnston, the man Plante had replaced. A poignant appearance it was, too, because Johnston suspects he is the "player to be named later" by Boston to go to Toronto in the Plante deal. So Eddie was sulky, right? Mad at the world? Nope. Johnston was spectacular. Sanderson replaced Esposito at center and also combined with a marvelous Boston rookie, Greg Sheppard, to disrupt the Ranger power play that had produced four goals in the first two games. Sanderson won eight of nine face-offs in his own zone while killing four straight penalty minutes in the first period, and ultimately Sheppard scored two goals. So the Bruins, down two games to none on their own ice, won 4-2 in enemy country.
Now the Bruins had a chance to tie the series Sunday night and regain their home-ice advantage—or disadvantage, take your choice. New York was weakened by injuries to Hadfield, its top left wing, and Dale Rolfe, its steadiest defenseman. But by executing the Francis Plan to perfection once again the Rangers harassed the Bruins all night and skated off to a 4-0 victory. Eddie Johnston could have used a little help from his friends. For Giacomin it was his first shutout ever in Cup play. As the final minutes ticked away on the Garden clock, the balcony fanatics began to chant a tune not heard in New York since 1940: "Goodby, Boston, we hate to see you go."