The third annual Philadelphia-Toronto quarterfinal series in the Stanley Cup playoffs began last week, and in keeping with the wacky history of the event, the first four games failed to follow any logical pattern. Indeed, while Montreal and the New York Islanders both swept their series, and Boston was taking a 3-1 lead over Los Angeles, the Flyers and the Maple Leafs invented something called the "away-ice advantage" or the "home-ice disadvantage." Take your pick.
To demonstrate it, they had the Maple Leafs skate into Philadelphia, where they had won only one game in six years, and beat the Flyers twice in three nights. Then they took their great discovery to Toronto and had the Flyers beat the Maple Leafs twice in three nights. Both times in sudden death. And both times after furious rallies in the closing minutes of regulation play.
Apparently facing an embarrassing early elimination, the visiting Flyers forced the third game of the series into overtime Friday night on Rick MacLeish's goal with 38 seconds to play. MacLeish scored again less than three minutes into sudden death, and the Flyers escaped 4-3.
For a time Sunday night, it appeared as if the away-ice advantage would not work. With Lanny McDonald scoring four goals, the Maple Leafs were coasting along with a 5-2 lead, and there were less than six minutes to play. But Philadelphia's Mel Bridgman closed Toronto's lead to 5-3 with a shorthanded goal at 14:11, and when Tom Bladon and Bobby Clarke struck for goals at 18:11 and 18:27, the Flyers had forced another overtime. The invention worked once again, Philadelphia's Reggie Leach beating Toronto Goaltender Mike Palmateer after 19:10 of overtime to give the Flyers a 6-5 victory and square the series at two games apiece.
The Maple Leafs' failures before the home fans were almost in keeping with their new image. Historically a stodgy bunch, they now tend to behave like the cast of a Mel Brooks movie. Cantankerous owner Harold Ballard has been compared to every bombastic figure from Charlie Finley to Idi Amin. While the Leafs were beating the Flyers 3-2 and 4-1 at Philadelphia, Ballard was quoted as criticizing 1) the courage of his Swedish players, Borje Salming and Inge Hammarstrom, 2) the social legislation of the provincial (Ontario) attorney general, and 3) the decisions of Toronto Coach Red Kelly. Meanwhile, Kelly was busy spraying negative ions around the locker room. Last year, Kelly had employed "pyramid power," and two years ago, responding to Ballard's contention that he wasn't tough enough on the players, Kelly had carried a cat-o'-nine-tails behind the bench.
Palmateer, a curly-haired rookie, not only looks like a soda jerk down at Bas-kin-Robbins, but he also looks as though he samples all 31 flavors every day. Forward Dave (Tiger) Williams, the NHL's penalty leader with 338 minutes, has Carmen Basilio's craggy face and works out daily on a punching bag. Another forward, Jim McKenny, keeps up a Carsonesque monologue, even on the ice. After saying that the eight stitches sewn into his head Wednesday night didn't bother him. McKenny added, "This game is 50% mental and 50% being mental."
Still, Toronto's successes at Philadelphia were hardly expected. The Flyers had roared down the stretch 'with an eight-game undefeated streak and finished with more points (112) than any team except Montreal—and 31 more points than the Maple Leafs. The Leafs played inconsistently all year. They surrendered more goals than nine of the 12 teams that made the playoffs. They won one game 11-9, lost another 9-5, and in the second half of the schedule won only 12 of 40 games, including just two against teams with winning records. In addition, for the Philadelphia series the Toronto defense corps was down to four semi-healthy bodies. Two of them belonged to rookie Randy Carlyle and WHA reject Mike Pelyk, and when they suddenly appeared as a regular tandem, they were immediately dubbed "The Odd Couple."
The two games at the Spectrum followed identical scripts. In each, the Maple Leafs came out flying and, led by their three stars—Center Darryl Sittler, Right Wing McDonald and the ubiquitous Salming, the best defensive defense-man in hockey—jumped to 3-0 leads against shaky Goaltender Bernie Parent. Then, with a secure lead, the Leafs adopted a stubborn goal-line-stand style of defense and played the final two periods as though they were two men short. "We seemed to control the games," said Flyer Wing Ross Lonsberry, "but nothing ever happened. It was frustrating. They kept shooting the puck 40 feet in the air, and we spent two nights looking for it."
On those rare occasions when the Flyers did penetrate Toronto's defense, they were further frustrated by Palmateer's brilliant goaltending. "Nervous?" he was asked. "Naw, no more than for a house game." The book says that the red-haired, green-eyed Palmateer is 23, but he looks 13. "When I'm 40," he says, "I'll look 23, and all those other guys will be wrinkled and ugly." The book also says Palmateer is 5'9", but he's barely 5'7".
"Winning these two games doesn't surprise me," said Williams. "The talent's here. We just screwed around too much during the regular season. I'm not saying the Flyers are counted out, but they're done like a dinner." Sittler, however, was more cautious. "Just look at our recent road and home records," he said. In fact, the Maple Leafs were 8-4-3 away from Toronto and only 2-6-5 at home. "Sometimes we get carried away and try to put on a big show for the home fans," Sittler explained.
Toronto was in a sports frenzy when the Maple Leafs arrived back in town. Not only were the Leafs two games up on the Flyers, the baseball Blue Jays also were tied for first place in the American League East (page 24). Scalpers swooped down on Carlton Street, asking—and getting—$75 to $125 for a single ticket to the third game of the Maple Leafs-Flyers series. One local columnist wrote, "A good hockey series is what holds this country together." Disc jockeys cut short their rock patter to talk about the Maple Leafs and the Blue Jays.
For their part, the Flyers had other things on their mind. On Wednesday morning they learned that Barry Ashbee, their assistant coach, whose playing career was terminated three years ago when he was struck in the eye by a puck, was in a Philadelphia hospital with leukemia. On Friday morning 16 Flyers skated at a game-day workout at Maple Leaf Gardens, but four others were in Ontario County Court to face trial on charges resulting from the brawls that highlighted the second annual Philadelphia-Toronto series in 1976.
To shake the Flyers up, Coach Fred Shero started Wayne Stephenson in place of Parent in the third game Friday night. But the Maple Leafs didn't seem to notice the difference, Sittler scoring early in the first period for a 1-0 lead, then combining with Salming to set up Ian Turnbull for a 2-0 advantage. However, as Sittler had feared, the Leafs tried to put on a show for their fans. "For some reason Toronto got a little fancier once it had that 2-0 lead," said Lonsberry.
Indeed, Toronto unaccountably abandoned the goal-line defense that had worked so effectively in Philadelphia and tried to free-skate with the Flyers. In quick order, Lonsberry and Orest Kindrachuk scored to tie the game at 2-2, and most of the action was at Palmateer's goal crease.
Late in the third period the message board flashed word that the Blue Jays were leading the White Sox at Chicago. The crowd erupted. Moments later it erupted again when Errol Thompson beat Stephenson through a screen to give the Leafs a 3-2 lead with 4:09 to play.
"The Toronto fans thought we were dead," Shero said, "but our guys were so determined that they were all standing up on the bench and screaming. I couldn't even see the bleeping game." Well, Fred, MacLeish scored the tying and winning goals.
Then on Sunday night Palmateer couldn't handle Leach's long overtime blast, giving the Flyers their 6-5 victory and leaving the exasperated McDonald to mumble, "Well, at least we've still got the away-ice advantage to look forward to in two of the next three games."