It was the morning after an uncommonly bad weekend for the New York Rangers. The Boston Bruins had humiliated them two days before, for all the nation to see on TV, by scoring six goals in the indecently short space of 6� minutes. The Montreal Canadiens had shut them out the night before. Now, in the Rangers' office in Madison Square Garden, a radio newsman with a tape recorder extinguished a cigaret, threw a long arm around Coach Phil Watson's shoulders and said, "Phil, with startling suddenness disaster has struck the Rangers. What are you going to do about it'"
"What do you mean, disaster?" rasped Watson. "We're still in second place, aren't we?" And, by George, so they were, until Detroit dumped them to third the following week. With half the season completed, the Rangers had been having the best of it in the real National Hockey League race—the scramble among the five underprivileged teams for the three Stanley Cup playoff positions that will remain after the overpowering Canadiens clinch first place.
It is typical of the season—as peculiar a campaign as you are likely to see in the NHL—that the Canadiens entered last week with the only better-than-.500 average in the standings and a remarkable 18-point lead, despite having lost most of their stars for long periods through injury.
It is typical of the Rangers—as unpredictable a team as you are likely to find in hockey—that they started a five-game road trip last week in a terrible slump, not having won since December 22. It is perhaps also typical, if hardly credible, that they won five and tied one of their first seven games with the mighty Canadiens and still held a 5-4-1 advantage over them this week.
The thing was, the Rangers were being a lot cheekier than almost anyone had thought possible. Granted, they had made the playoffs the last two seasons with approximately the same players, but the hockey writers in their preseason poll could see them no higher than fifth.
Well, by the time the Rangers had vaulted into first place for 10 days in November—their first visit there in a good many years—and had defeated the Canadiens in two consecutive games, thereby slaking a 16-year thirst, there hadn't been so much uplifted spirit in the Garden since the Rev. Billy Graham's midsummer crusade for another group of passionate followers.
Undeniably a large measure of credit for the Rangers' revival is due to Phil Watson. A brilliant and quarrelsome center on the successful prewar Rangers, Fiery Phil became coach in 1955 and tongue-lashed the Rangers into third place by the following spring. He needled them through a fourth-place finish last year, and started the current season characteristically by announcing, "Anyone who drags his fanny will drag it to Providence [a Ranger farm team]."
On opening day the Rangers had: two established stars in Andy Bathgate, who set a Ranger scoring record of 77 points last season, during which he was hailed as a new superstar, and Bill Gadsby, the high-scoring defense-man; a nucleus of eight good journeyman forwards; a good but not first-rate goalie in Lorne Worsley; a not-very-solid corps of defensemen behind Gadsby; and four lackluster young forwards, three of whom M. Needle, as Watson was by now known, eventually threatend to fire.
In their first 10 games the Rangers played slightly better than .500 hockey, and little Gump Worsley had the best goals-against average of any goalie in the league. Dean Prentice blossomed as a very fine left wing. Defenseman Harry Howell, who had been replaced as captain by Center Red Sullivan, displayed an aggressive new style that silenced the yahoos in the galleries who had given him the bird last year. The Rangers were alive and exciting and were drawing about 4,000 more customers to the Garden per night than in the last miserable season before the Watson regime.
Then Gump Worsley pulled a thigh muscle and up from Providence came 25-year-old Marcel Paille. The tall, plump and phlegmatic Marcel shut out Boston in his first major league game. Watson and the Rangers' general manager, Muzz Patrick, liked Paille's stand-up style. They reflected that Worsley made many a sensational save, but was frequently down and out of position for the rebound shot. Naturally they were delighted that Paille lost only one of his first 10 games.