For soul-searching inspiration, Coach Fred Shero likes to have the Philadelphia Flyers bivouac at a hideaway in Valley Forge, not far from where Washington once camped for the winter. Last Sunday the Flyers—those Broad St. Bullies who have made the penalty box just another toll booth on the road to the Stanley Cup—were plainly worried and in need of inspiration. So there they were at Valley Forge, waiting to leave for the Spectrum after having just spent the night tossing and turning from the recurring nightmare of Toronto's Darryl Sittler rifling five—yes, five—goals past Bernie Parent as the Maple Leafs tied their best-of-seven quarterfinal-round Stanley Cup series at three games apiece.
"You always think that maybe you'll get beat," said Left Wing Ross Lonsberry, "but I never thought it would come to this." Or as Right Wing Don Saleski, who had been charged with assault for his activities in one game but scored the three-goal hat trick Tuesday night, put it grimly, "It scares me, all the things that can happen when the whole season comes down to one game."
Shero abandoned his usual poetic and philosophic pregame rhetoric and flat-out warned his Flyers to eliminate the cheap penalties they had been taking at a record pace—or there would be no champagne-filled cup for Philadelphia this spring. "I don't want to hear one more word about violence," Shero said. "Not until next September. Until then we play hockey, do you hear?"
That night, it was tense and hot in the Spectrum. One banner—THE FLYERS WILL AVENGE THE PHILA 4—captured the mood of the Philadelphia crowd, incensed by the assault charges against four Flyers in Toronto for alleged acts of aggression in Games 3 and 6. Surprisingly, the Flyers started slowly, and with Maple Leaf Defenseman Borje Salming, the main subject of the crowd's verbal scorn, controlling play, Toronto had a 2-1 lead early in the second period. Then it happened. Saleski, one of the Philadelphia Four, beat Wayne Thomas on the short side for the tying goal, and suddenly the Maple Leafs collapsed under a storm of pressure applied by Philadelphia's robust checkers.
May 2, 1976
Rookie Mel Bridgman, another charged Flyer, rapped a rebound past Thomas at 5:48 to give Philadelphia a 3-2 lead, and 16 seconds later he backhanded another shot past Thomas to make it 4-2. Lonsberry concluded the blitz at 7:59, giving the Flyers four goals in three minutes and 16 seconds, and when the game was over they had a decisive 7-3 victory. Better still, not one Flyer was hauled into court.
Having narrowly escaped disaster, Philadelphia now squares off against the Boston Bruins, who shut out the Los Angeles Kings 3-0 in their seventh game Sunday night, in one best-of-seven semifinal series, while the Montreal Canadiens, who rested again last week after having eliminated the Chicago Black Hawks in four straight games, battle the feisty New York Islanders in the other. Montreal Coach Scotty Bowman was so concerned about the Islanders that he personally scouted their 4-3 victory over the Sabres in Buffalo on Tuesday night, then dispatched retired Coach Toe Blake to inspect them as they ousted the Sabres with a 3-2 win Thursday night on Long Island. "The Islanders don't make many mistakes," Bowman said. "Maybe the only way to beat them is to let them win the first few games."
What Bowman meant is that in their two-year playoff history the Islanders have specialized in the pulsating rally from the brink of defeat rather than in the quiet comfort of quick, easy triumphs. Last spring, New York lost the first three games of its quarterfinal series to Pittsburgh but roared back to beat the Penguins by taking four straight. Then the Islanders lost the first three games to Philadelphia in the semifinal but still forced the Flyers to a seventh game before bowing out.
Understandably, there had been little pessimism among the Islanders when they dropped their first two games to the Sabres in Buffalo. "We bend but don't break," said General Manager Bill Torrey. Actually, New York's comeback started in the third period of that first defeat when Coach Al Arbour lifted Goaltender Glenn (Chico) Resch, the goalpost-kissing hero of the 1975 playoffs, and replaced him with Battling Billy Smith, the Dave Schultz of NHL net-minders. "We've got two No. 1 goalies," said Arbour, explaining his move.
Maybe so. During the regular schedule, however, Resch played the majority of New York's crucial games, had a 2.07 goals-against average that was topped only by Montreal's Ken Dryden, and so captivated the home crowds with his flamboyance that they serenaded him with chants of "Chee-ko, Chee-ko" before, during and after Islander games. For his part, the temperamental Smith preferred to play on the road, far from the Nassau Coliseum crowds that booed him on sight and generally treated him with the derision normally reserved for conductors on the Long Island Railroad.
Playing brilliantly, Smith took the Islanders into overtime in the second game in Buffalo before they lost to the Sabres on a body-shot goal by Danny Gare. Rather than return to Resch when the series moved to Long Island, Arbour stayed with Smith. As Smith skated for his net before the third game, the crowd gave him a Resch-style cheer and began to chant "Bill-lee, Bill-lee." Smith soon set the mood for the rest of the series. Gare, a chippy stick waver who scored 50 goals for Buffalo in his second pro season, parked at Smith's goal mouth and repeatedly rapped his stick against Smith's pads, trying to distract him. No luck. Instead, Smith pounced on Gare, laced him with punches, threw him to the ice and, well, sat on him. The Islanders won the game 5-3, then Smith helped them tie the series with a 4-2 victory as he stymied Buffalo's high-scoring Richard Martin three times with dazzling stops at the goal mouth.
Back in Buffalo, Smith walked dazedly through the hotel lobby before Tuesday's fifth game, muttering nothings to himself and looking like any other psyched-up goaltender. The Sabres beat him twice in the early minutes, but the Islanders predictably stormed back and tied the score at 2-2. Smith, who has a habit of allowing soft goals, gave the Sabres a freak go-ahead score midway through the third period when Jim Lorentz' passout from behind the net bounced off his right skate and trickled across the goal line. Depressed, Smith buried his head against the mesh atop the New York goal.
But again the Islanders rallied. Old hand J.P. Parise set up Defenseman Denis Potvin for the tying goal with 4:28 to play. Then the most improbable goal scorer on the ice, Defenseman Bert Marshall, won the game for New York with just 19 seconds remaining. Andre St. Laurent worked the puck over to Marshall, who had not scored a goal all season, and he stopped it inside the blue line. Gare, who should have been checking Marshall, had such little respect for Marshall's shot that he left him completely unattended. "Gerry Desjardins was screened and never saw the puck," Marshall said after his shot passed through countless legs and beat Desjardins to make the final score 4-3. "I don't shoot the puck hard enough for a goaltender to miss it."
There were more cheers of "Bill-lee, Bill-lee" when Smith skated out for the sixth game at the Nassau Coliseum, but at the end Smith was cheering his teammates for the tenacious checking they displayed while limiting the Sabres to just 17 shots at him in New York's 3-2 victory, which put the Islanders into the semifinals. Toward the end Smith did a Cossack skate-dance in his crease as he watched Bryan Trottier, the 19-year-old rookie who may be the best pure center to enter the NHL since Jean Beliveau joined the Canadiens 25 years ago, deliver the ultimate in defensive play.
Desperate for a game-tying goal, the Sabres tried to form a rush four times during the final 43 seconds. On each occasion, Trottier cleanly checked the puck carrier against the boards or dumped him onto the ice—and the puck never cleared the zone. "They all made my work easy," Smith said.
As the Islanders celebrated their series triumph, Jim Schoenfeld, the captain of the Sabres, who had to sit out the final game with a wrist injury, walked through their dressing room and offered his congratulations. Shaking hands with Islander Defenseman Gerry Hart, Schoenfeld said, "You really showed a lot of heart out there, Gerry." Schoenfeld laughed at his pun.
They laughed in Philadelphia and Boston, too, but not until Sunday night.