For 25 weeks and six days the NHL season had been about as exciting as a form 1040. If the stories weren't about money, or the lack of it, then people were complaining about having to wait six months for the Stanley Cup playoffs to begin. But all of a sudden last Sunday it was the final day of the regular schedule—and the NHL was embroiled in the wildest, most jumbled finish in its 60-year history. The first playoff games were less than 48 hours away, but not one of the four opening-round matchups had been determined, and the Boston-Buffalo brouhaha for first place in the Adams Division—and a bye in the best-of-three preliminary series—still had not been decided.
"All we know is that we've got a game next Tuesday night," said Atlanta General Manager Cliff Fletcher. "We just don't know where, or against what team."
The NHL's 12-team playoff sweepstakes normally is understood only by MIT Ph.D.s, but Sunday's events had even the deep thinkers struggling. The four divisional winners all receive byes in the preliminary round, which explains why Smythe Division champion St. Louis, whose 73 points would not have been enough even to qualify for the cup chase in any other division, has this week off. Then, the eight teams—two from each division—involved in Round 1 are seeded by order of their regular-season point totals, with No. 1 playing No. 8, No. 2 meeting No. 7, etc. So there were basically three sets of scrambles.
For example, not only were Boston and Buffalo battling for first place, the loser also wanted to finish ahead of the New York Islanders in the duel for the No. 1 seed in Round 1. Also at stake, projecting further, were the No. 3 and No. 4 seeding positions behind Montreal and Philadelphia in the next two playoff rounds. The advantage to placing third overall was particularly clear: there could be no confrontation with the powerful Canadiens until the cup finals. Mean while, Pittsburgh, Los Angeles, Toronto and Atlanta were involved in a one-day season to settle the two remaining home-ice positions in Round 1. And Minnesota and Chicago were in competition for the seventh seed.
And so it was that at noontime Sunday Pittsburgh, L.A., Atlanta and Toronto were trying to explain to harried airline and hotel clerks that "No, we don't know whether we'll be leaving on Monday or Wednesday—or, for that matter, where we'll be going." Arena managers were understandably in turmoil. "This is always the Russian roulette season," said Claire Rothman, who books events for the Los Angeles Forum, "but this year it's ridiculous." Chicago didn't even have ice available. "Back in October there was no reason to think we wouldn't finish first again and have a bye," said Don Murphy, the Black Hawk publicist. In October, Chicago had Bobby Orr, and now in April Chicago has Led Zeppelin. Boston publicity chief Nate Greenberg had three different preliminary programs—for Minnesota, Chicago and Vancouver—in type at the printers.
The hors d'oeuvres before Sunday's final course weren't bad, either. Early in the week the Flyers settled the race for first place in the Patrick Division by beating the Islanders 3-1 in Philadelphia. Then Minnesota, playing eight rookies regularly, gained the cup playoffs for the first time in four years by winning three games in four nights. But the Silky Sullivan Award belonged to Boston. In eight days the Bruins won four straight games, including three come-from-behind triumphs on the road, and galloped from five points behind Buffalo to two points ahead of the Sabres as both teams prepared to conclude the season with home games Sunday night.
Boston's amazing stretch skate began when the Bruins were trailing Toronto 4-2 at the start of the third period in Maple Leaf Gardens. "For the first time all season I figured it was all over," says Boston Coach Don Cherry. The Bruins cut Toronto's lead to 5-4 with only 75 seconds to play, but Buffalo General Manager Punch Imlach, an interested onlooker, thought the Toronto margin was so secure that he began to make his way through the corridors to the exit. Imlach heard one roar, then another, then a third, so he stuck his head through an entryway for a peek at the scoreboard. He gasped. Boston 7, Toronto 5.
Imlach was so mad he charged into the executive parking lot, jumped into a car and drove away. Three blocks later Imlach realized he was driving the wrong car. Then, to complete his evening, Imlach turned on the radio and listened to his Sabres lose 6-4 in Los Angeles.
Still, the Sabres led the Bruins by one point as they squared off in Buffalo on Wednesday night. The teams are exact opposites on the ice: Boston now uses the hard-hat, beat-'em-in-the-corners approach, while Buffalo dazzles with the speed and finesse of Gilbert Perreault and Richard Martin. Boston jumped to a 2-0 edge, but Buffalo rallied for a 3-2 lead early in the third period. The Buffalo fans were chanting Auld Lang Syne when Brad Park tied the score for Boston, but they were speechless when Mike Milbury put the Bruins ahead 4-3 midway through the period. Then, unbelievably, the tough-checking Bostonians held the Sabres without a shot at Goaltender Gerry Cheevers over the final 10 minutes, twice neutralizing the Buffalo power play, and escaped with a 4-3 victory—and a one-point lead over the Sabres.
Still, the Bruins' situation was precarious, as they met the Islanders Saturday afternoon on Long Island. Only by defeating the Islanders and then Toronto in their final game would the Bruins win the Adams, get a week's vacation and also overtake the Islanders in the race for the NHL's third-best record.
For a time the Bruins-Islanders skirmish was a replay of the Boston-Buffalo match. The Bruins took a quick 2-0 lead on a pair of goals by Don Marcotte, but the Islanders capitalized on a string of five straight penalties against the Bruins to go ahead 3-2 early in the second period. Just 13 seconds after Clark Gillies' goal had put the Islanders in front, Marcotte scored his third goal for a 3-3 tie. Jean Ratelle scored the 400th goal of his NHL career later in the period to give the Bruins a 4-3 lead, and Milbury beat a shaky Chico Resch to give Boston a 5-3 victory. Boston's checkers dominated the third period again, holding New York to only five shots on Cheevers, and just one during the last 10 minutes.
That night in Toronto, Buffalo tied the Maple Leafs 1-1 on Jerry Korab's goal late in the third period and pulled to within two points of the Bruins. "So we haven't won anything yet," said Boston Wing Wayne Cashman as the Bruins prepared to play Toronto Sunday night. Indeed, if Buffalo beat St. Louis, and Boston failed to get at least a tie against the Maple Leafs, the Bruins and Sabres would tie for first place with 104 points. Under the complicated procedure for breaking ties, the Sabres then would be awarded first place—and the Round 1 bye—on the basis of their better record in Adams Division games.
On madcap Sunday the precincts began to phone in their final tabulations shortly after 4:30 p.m. E.S.T. Atlanta was first on the line; the Flames blew a 3-1 lead and got only a 3-3 tie with Philadelphia, thus losing any chance for home-ice advantage in Round 1. "We're leaving for Los Angeles Monday at 10 a.m. or for Pittsburgh at 3 p.m.," said a distressed Fletcher. The next result came from the West Coast at 7:45 p.m. as Minnesota lost to Vancouver 6-3, leaving the North Stars just one point ahead of Chicago for the seventh seed.
Shortly after 9:30 p.m., Buffalo phoned in with a 7-3 victory over St. Louis and, pending the outcome of the Toronto-Boston game, the Sabres were in first place in the Adams race. At 10:02 p.m. Pittsburgh checked in with a 4-2 win over Detroit, clinching home ice against someone—anyone—on Tuesday night.
The first returns from Boston came at 10:12 p.m.: Bruins 5, Maple Leafs 1, with 14 minutes to play. Then came an update: Bruins 5, Maple Leafs 4, with five minutes to play. All Buffalo groaned at the next score: Bruins 6, Maple Leafs 4, on an empty-net goal. Then the final: Bruins 7, Maple Leafs 4, on another empty-net goal. So Boston had defeated the Sabres for the Adams title, and had edged the Islanders for the third-best record in the league.
At 10:51 p.m. there was more bad news for Buffalo: the Islanders beat the Rangers 5-2 and thus finished the schedule with two more points than the Sabres.
Now only two more precincts were still out. At 11:13 p.m. a South Side alderman reported that Chicago had lost to Cleveland 4-2. The Black Hawks did not demand a recount by Led Zeppelin, so Minnesota held on to the seventh seed for the preliminaries while Chicago retained the eighth, and last, spot. Two playoff series were set: Chicago against the Islanders, Minnesota against Buffalo.
As Sunday passed into history in the East, Atlanta, Pittsburgh and Toronto awaited the results of Los Angeles' game at Colorado. At 12:33 a.m. E.S.T. Monday, the call came: in the 720th—and final—game of the season, Los Angeles scored twice in the last two minutes to beat Colorado 6-4. So the remaining matchups were set: Atlanta opening at L.A., and Toronto at Pittsburgh.
And at 9 a.m. the Bruins' Nate Greenberg called the printer in Boston and told him to shred the programs.