On a hockey team composed mostly of real-estate tycoons, municipal-bond investors, stock-market speculators and golf professionals, they are the four poor guys from the low-rent district, the lowest-paid veterans on the roster of the New York Rangers. Ron Harris usually looks more like a player-to-be-named-later in a deal than a Ranger with a future. Ted Irvine shuffles through something unchic called the Manitoba Boogaloo Pump after he scores a goal. Bruce Cameron MacGregor has a mysterious nickname, Murdoch, and nobody much cares why. Pete Stemkowski has a couple of handles that are manifest—the Polish Prince and the Kielbasa Kid—but ethnic clout has not paid off so far at contract time.
Last week, however, the poor four spared their wealthy playmates the embarrassment of another rapid exit from the Stanley Cup playoffs by rallying the Rangers past the defending champion Montreal Canadiens and silencing, for the time being at least, the thousands of frustrated New Yorkers who had serenaded them with chants of "Re-fund, refund, re-fund"—a consumer complaint over high ticket prices as measured against product. Charging in after the Canadiens had won two of the first three games of their opening-round series, the Polish Prince and his court introduced a stunning new hockey concept to their teammates. Call it determination, drive, fight—or a boot in the rear. What happened was that the poor four would not let the rich guys do what they often have done in the face of adversity—pull an el foldo.
It all started shortly before Game Four with a private meeting between Emile Francis, the scrappy chancellor of the Rangers' exchequer, and the man they call Murdoch. The 33-year-old MacGregor is a quiet redhead who has skated in obscurity through most of his 13 NHL seasons. As he suspected, Francis wanted to discuss Yvan Cournoyer, the Montreal Roadrunner, who had deflated the Rangers in Games Two and Three by scoring five goals.
"Emile said we had to contain Cournoyer, or else," MacGregor says. "He asked if I'd switch from right wing to left wing, forget all about my own offense and think only about shadowing Cournoyer. He told me that if I could keep Cournoyer off his game even a little bit, then things might fall into place for us."
April 28, 1974
While MacGregor admittedly cannot skate as fast as Cournoyer—who can?—he accepted the assignment. "I had never played head to head against Cournoyer," MacGregor says, "but I knew his game. He plays the percentages. He likes to sneak between or behind the defense and get a long lead pass from Jacques Lemaire or one of the defensemen. My job, as I saw it, was to stay between Cournoyer and [Ranger Goaltender] Eddie Giacomin. I had to be the middleman at all times. I knew if Cournoyer got between Giacomin and me on a breakaway, it probably would be curtains. There's no way I'd ever catch him in a race. It would be worse than the tortoise and the hare."
With MacGregor assigned to Cournoyer, Francis reclaimed Ron Harris from the bench and installed him at MacGregor's normal right-wing position on the third line with Stemkowski and Irvine. The third line is supposed to be the weakest, usually featuring low-salaried performers who will be selected in the next expansion draft. Almost immediately, though, the Rangers' revamped third line began to do weird things—like score goals.
Montreal went ahead 1-0, but Harris tied the score when he skated behind the Canadiens' defense and rolled a backhander past Goaltender Bunny Larocque. The sight of Harris skating behind any team's defense, let alone Montreal's, must have boggled the minds of some Canadians. Harris grew up in the Montreal suburb of Verdun, within walking distance of the Forum, but his plodding stride and his obvious lack of lateral mobility led the Canadiens to write him off as a marginal prospect at best. So Harris played junior amateur hockey for the Detroit organization, and in his 11 pro seasons he has been with eight different teams. Francis has usually employed Harris as a muscleman. "His job is to rattle bones," Francis says. "He skates in a straight line and hits everything in his way. He makes things happen."
Still, the Canadiens skated to a 3-1 lead, but just as the Madison Square Garden crowd began to cry "Re-fund, refund," in anticipation of a Ranger collapse, the third line changed the sneers to cheers. The Rangers went ahead 4-3 as Irvine scored twice, and after both goals he did his boogaloo, which is sort of a bouncing run on the tips of his blades accompanied by a four-second body shimmy and a triple pump of his arms. In the old days, like last season, the act was fresh because Irvine scored a goal only once every eight or nine games. This season he scored 26 times—once every three games—and practically wore himself out doing the dance.
After Irvine's whirl the Canadiens tied the score, and then, with slightly more than five minutes to play, MacGregor, skating with the third line because Cournoyer happened to be on the ice, flicked in the winner on an artful conversion of Defenseman Dale Rolfe's passout from the side boards. MacGregor also checked Cournoyer perfectly, holding him scoreless and limiting him to just two shots on goal.
For the poor four, that was only the appetizer. Back at the Forum for Game Five, the Canadiens again took an early 1-0 lead, but MacGregor tied it up shortly afterward. Cournoyer had the puck behind the Montreal net, while MacGregor dutifully waited in front for the elusive Frenchman to make his next move. As Cournoyer debated what to do, Jean Ratelle of the Rangers took the puck off his stick and slid it out to the uncovered MacGregor, who beat Larocque with a backhander. Montreal later went in front 2-1 and nursed the lead into the final minute of play.
Per custom, Francis removed Giacomin, who had played sensationally in goal, with 54 seconds remaining in the game and replaced him with an extra attacker. But rather than send out his complete first or second line, Francis waved both MacGregor and Stemkowski onto the ice. Of all the Rangers, Stemkowski is probably the best clutch player. He is also one of the game's top faceoff artists. In the next 33 seconds there were five faceoffs deep inside the Montreal zone. On the fifth, working against Henri Richard, Stemkowski batted the puck against the boards. Richard and Frank Mahovlich tried to control it but it rolled back to New York's Brad Park at the point. Park skated to his left and moved closer to the net, then fired a chest-high bullet at Larocque. As the Montreal goaltender juggled the puck, Stemkowski grazed him and the puck squirted loose, dropped to the ice and rolled to Larocque's left. There was MacGregor, and before Larocque could react the puck was in the net. Overtime.
And here was the Polish Prince again. After slightly more than four minutes of the extra session, there was a faceoff to Larocque's left. Montreal Coach Scotty Bowman sent out Lemaire to face Stemkowski. "Drop the puck in the middle," Lemaire warned the linesman. "Don't give it to him." On the bench, though, Bowman had a better idea. He recalled Lemaire and replaced him with Peter Mahovlich, who seemed a better match for Stemkowski's strength. Mahovlich said nothing to the linesman. The puck dropped flat onto the ice, and, easily beating Mahovlich, Stemkowski snatched it with his backhand and slid it back to Harris at the edge of the circle.
"Before the game I called my wife and told her if the game went into overtime I'd score the winning goal," Harris said. "She told me I was a liar. She had a point, too, because I got only two goals all season."
Well, Harris blasted the puck right past Larocque, who was screened by several players, touching off a wild Ranger celebration. In the Montreal dressing room, Bowman studied a statistical summary of the game. "Look at this," he said. "MacGregor: six shots on goal, two goals. Cournoyer: two shots on goal, no goals. Unless that changes, we are in trouble."
It didn't—and the Canadiens were. They took the lead again in the sixth game, 2-0 on goals by Richard and Steve Shutt, and Cournoyer even got an assist, but once again MacGregor and the poor four rallied the Rangers. MacGregor took a pass from Park, slipped between two Montreal defensemen and faked Larocque out of position before scoring on an easy backhander. Forty-six seconds later the Rangers tied the score, and they went ahead in the third period on a play initiated by Irvine. For good measure, Stemkowski buried the Canadiens with two empty-net goals 18 seconds apart in the final minute of play.
In three games MacGregor had out-shot Cournoyer nine to five and out-scored him four to nothing, leaving Bowman with a strange look on his face. "I didn't think New York had anyone who could slow Yvan down," he said. "I thought Gene Carr was the only New York player who could skate with him, and they traded Carr to Los Angeles. That MacGregor, he's pretty smart."
And the poor four may not be that much longer. "As it happens," MacGregor says, "we are all in the last year of our contracts. I'd say that what we did against Montreal puts us in good bargaining position. Now we have something to point to when we sit down and talk money with Emile."
Having defeated the defending champions for the third straight spring—but won no cup themselves for 34—the Rangers bussed down the New Jersey Turnpike to open play with the feisty Philadelphia Flyers on Saturday in the semifinals, but not even the poor four could bail out the lifeless millionaires this time. The Flyers bullied the Rangers relentlessly, crashing them against the boards and knocking them to the ice with abandon in a 4-0 thrashing. New York managed only five shots against Goal-tender Bernie Parent in the first 30 minutes, and Parent did not have to stop anything difficult until the last seven minutes of the third period. "It was a perfect game for us," exulted Flyer Captain Bobby Clarke.
In the other semifinal series at Boston, the score in the family affair involving the Brothers Esposito was Tony one and Phil one. In the first game Tony repeatedly frustrated brother Phil and the rest of the Bruins by making 46 saves as the Black Hawks scored an upset 4-2 victory on John Marks' goal with slightly more than three minutes left to play. Then, on Sunday afternoon national television Phil and the Bruins walloped Tony 8-6. Nothing poor about that game but the defenses.