Minnesota North Star coach Glen Sonmor stood in Chicago Stadium Sunday night, wearing the relieved expression of a man who had just been granted a stay of execution. Which he had, thanks to Dennis Maruk's goal at 1:14 of overtime—the second straight OT game in this strange Norris Division championship series in which both teams have traded leads as if they were contaminated. Maruk's goal capped a wildly improbable Minnesota comeback during which the North Stars, facing elimination, rallied from a 4-0 deficit to stun the Black Hawks 5-4, cutting Chicago's lead in the series to three games to two and sending the teams back to Minnesota for Game 6. "I'm so tired of reading how the North Stars don't have any heart or any character," Sonmor said. "Maybe this will put some of that to rest. We've been a much maligned lot."
Over in the Black Hawks' dressing room, the players sat dazed in their cubicles. It was the second time in the series they had frittered away a huge lead at home, and they were at a loss to explain it. "We blew this one," summed up captain Darryl Sutter. "They showed character coming back. But we blew it."
Did they ever. At 9:08 of the second period the Hawks had that 4-0 cushion and 17,488 fans were singing a premature "Na-na-na-na" to the North Stars, who were supposed to be calling for their golf clubs. Instead, Sonmor called for Don Beaupre—the goat of Game 4—to replace Gilles Meloche in the Minnesota goal. Beaupre shut the door the rest of the way, and Minnesota, abandoning the goon tactics that had marred its play earlier in the series, stormed back, with Tony McKegney forcing the OT with a goal at 16:43 of the third period. "Sometimes you do things you don't really have to do," admitted North Star general manager Lou Nanne, reassessing his team's dumb, thuglike strategy in the first four games. "Maybe we should have played like this from the start."
The Black Hawks' collapse on Sunday was all the more startling because they had come such a long way since Feb. 4, when G.M. Bob Pulford took over the team's coaching duties. Pulford replaced Orval Tessier, whose violent eruptions had earned him the nickname Mount Orval and whose negativism with his players—he once called for heart transplants for the entire team—was so demoralizing that a number of them had just stopped putting out for him. The Hawks were six games under .500 and in the midst of a four-game losing streak when Pulford stepped behind the bench.
The change was instantaneous. Under Pulford, the Black Hawks went 16-7-4, then swept Detroit in their best-of-five opening-round playoff series, outscoring the Red Wings 23-8. The team was on a roll, and Sutter credited Pulford. "Pully is better organized and more intense than Orval," he said. "It was the difference between listening to the teacher and listening to the principal."
The North Stars, meanwhile, finally began to show some life after a pathetic regular season (25-43-12), in which they tied for 16th in the 21-team league. Healthy for the first time all year, the North Stars swept the St. Louis Blues in their opening series, sparked by Meloche's goaltending and some rough-house tactics that threw St. Louis off its game. The North Stars planned to employ the same formula against the Hawks that they had used to bruise the Blues. "We were playing mean in the St. Louis series," said Nanne. "That's the way we'll have to play Chicago. We're a lot stronger than they are. The Hawks have only three guys who will get into it. We've got a million of them."
By "get into it," Sweet Lou meant, of course, that the North Stars have players willing to put their knuckles where the other fella's mouth is. It was an interesting change in philosophy for Nanne, who took a clean, highly skilled North Star team to the Stanley Cup finals in 1981 and played the '81-82 season under the motto so CLOSE WE CAN TASTE IT. Unfortunately, what the North Stars tasted in the '82 playoffs was a lot of flesh and bone generously dished up by the Pulford-coached Black Hawks. The less-talented Hawks eliminated Minnesota, prompting Nanne to shift to what has proved to be a disastrous course—peppering his lineup with designated hitters such as Willi Plett, Paul Holmgren, Dave Richter and Harold Snepsts. Chicago, meanwhile, had toned down the rough stuff—although, with Al Secord, Curt Fraser and Behn Wilson roaming the ice, the Hawks will never be nominated for any peace prizes—and had replaced some of its big, slow wingers with such skilled players as Troy Murray, Ken Yaremchuk and 18-year-old rookie Ed Olczyk, a local boy and ex-Olympian who scored 20 goals this season and has been a standout in the playoffs.
The series opened April 18 in Chicago, and in the first six minutes the Black Hawks raced to a 3-0 lead on goals by Olczyk, Doug Wilson and Tom Lysiak. Piece of cake. The Hawks, who had averaged 7.6 goals per game since the playoffs began, figured they could score at will. But while the Hawks freewheeled, the North Stars gamely worked the corners and reeled off six straight goals en route to an 8-5 victory.
In Game 2, Chicago took a 2-0 lead but blew this one, too, before returning to a checking game that shut down the North Stars for a 6-2 Black Hawk victory. "These are end-to-end action teams," said Sonmor afterward, well satisfied with the split. "We're exposable and they're exposable. You won't see clutch and grab hockey. You'll see hockey the way it should be played."
Remember that line, if you please. In Minnesota for Game 3, it was the North Stars' turn to choke on a two-goal lead. Led by Plett, the North Stars hit everything in sight for the first 10 minutes, taking a 2-0 advantage on power-play goals by Maruk and Dino Ciccarelli. "That lead took us off our game," lamented Sonmor. "We stopped hitting and started freewheeling."
The Black Hawks—playing consistently if not very well—tied the score at 2-2 late in the first period, then went ahead on a pair of second-period goals by Secord. After that it was the North Stars against Hawk goalie Murray Bannerman, who stopped 30 of 31 shots in the final two periods, many of them spectacularly. Bannerman, who has been bothered by pulled stomach muscles since February, preserved Chicago's 5-3 win. Nanne was bothered by his team's passionless play: "There wasn't much meanness out there tonight. We've got to initiate the hitting."
And initiate it the North Stars did in Game 4, a 7-6 double-overtime win for Chicago that gave the Black Hawks a seemingly insurmountable three-games-to-one advantage. Hockey the way it should be played, huh? In the first 28 seconds Minnesota's Snepsts elbowed Olczyk in the chops for having the temerity to touch the puck, then dropped his gloves to fight as the baby-faced Olczyk attempted to skate away. Still, Snepsts had a nice view as Plett and Fraser exchanged haymakers to his immediate left; referee Terry Gregson called three fighting and seven roughing penalties in the first two periods, which took nearly two hours to complete. The North Stars staged a frontal assault on Behn Wilson, who took on all comers—first Plett, then Dirk Graham and finally Richter. As a result, Wilson spent 22 of the first 45 minutes of play in the penalty box. In between fights, the teams scored virtually at will, and after two periods the score stood 4-4, Minnesota outshooting Chicago 37-14.
In between periods, Pulford lambasted the Hawks for allowing the North Stars to sucker them into a street fight. "If they want to goon it, fine," Pulford said later. "We want to play it like the Islanders have always done—skate away and just play hockey." Pulford had learned that by watching the Islanders play Vancouver—a team that had outmugged his Hawks in the previous round—in the 1982 Stanley Cup finals. "Every time Vancouver tried to start something against the Islanders, the Isles just skated away," recalls Pulford. "They wouldn't get sucked in. I learned a great lesson from that."
In the third period the North Stars went ahead 5-4 and again 6-5, but each time the Black Hawks came back to tie. Finally, after Chicago center Denis Savard scored his second goal of the game to make it 6-6 with 7:28 left, Sonmor pulled Beaupre from the Minnesota goal and replaced him with Meloche.
One of the things that Pulford had done when he took over as Black Hawk coach in February was to start playing his six defensemen—Doug Wilson and Behn Wilson (no relation), Bob Murray, Jack O'Callahan, Jerome DuPont and Keith Brown—the entire game. That move now paid off in overtime when the disciplined Hawks gradually got the better of the play as the clock neared midnight. Sonmor, not trusting hitmen Snepsts and Richter with the game on the line, had gone with just four defensemen from the third period on, and they began to wear down. At 1:57 of the second OT, the Hawks' Sutter was left wide open in front of the net and tapped in a rebound of a shot by Lysiak. "It wasn't even exciting," Sutter said with a grin. "It was a gimme putt."
Once again Bannerman was the difference. He faced 54 shots in all, leading Hawk broadcaster Dale Tallon to crack, "I looked up at the shot clock and thought it was the temperature in the building."
"There's no justice!" Sonmor wailed afterward—a cry he happily amended after the North Stars' amazing comeback on Sunday. "There is justice," he said now. "Sometimes you just have to wait for it a little while."