Last sunday night the National Hockey League's six-month, 70-game odyssey came to an end in a flush of excitement over the battle for the fourth and last attainable position in the Stanley Cup playoffs which begin this week. ( Montreal, Boston and Chicago had already won the first three spots.)
In two cities 400 miles apart, the affections of followers of the New York Rangers and Toronto Maple Leafs reached out to urge their teams toward fourth place in the standings. For Ranger fans the shouts and prayers beseeched their skaters to hold on to what they already had, a diminutive, teetering advantage of one point going into the last night of the regular season. ( NHL standings are based on two points for a win and one for a tie.) A win for New York in its last game of the season against the Montreal Canadiens in Madison Square Garden would have ensured Stanley Cup participation.
Yet, 11 days before the final night that participation had seemed in no danger. After all, the Rangers were then seven points ahead of Toronto, and in hockey it takes a lot of bad games to dissipate a seven-point lead. But the Rangers managed it; they started to skate on sand. They played five games in the period from March 11 to 18 and lost all of them.
Toronto, meanwhile, who throughout 64 games of the regular season had been unable to patch together a winning streak longer than two, abruptly began to play like demons and captured four games in a row.
Still, the ultimate advantage seemed to be with the Rangers. They were playing at home, even though against the Canadiens. They went into their grand finale grumbling over Toronto's Thursday night victory over Montreal. The Canadiens regular goalie, Jacques Plante, had come up with a boil on his neck before the game which, Montreal Coach Toe Blake said, made it impossible for Plante to play against the Leafs.
Instead, the Leafs had the chance to shoot at Claude Pronovost, a wandering minstrel who was getting his NHL longevity stretched to two games. And Monsieur Pronovost was merveilleux. Merveilleux at letting goals go by. In just two periods in the cage he let five goals slip past him, and Toronto had the game tucked away before Blake inserted a second goalie, Claude Cyr.
Upon hearing the news, Muzz Patrick, the general manager of the Rangers, made blunt and sorehead comment. "There's nothing we can do about it. There's no real basis for a protest. But I'll say this. There's something stinking the joint out."
Perhaps the something was the Rangers' malevolent coach, Philippe Henri Watson, of whom New York fans were growing chary. Watson seemed to them to demean his players. Once this year he made them come back on the ice for a 43-minute workout after they had surrendered a 1-0 lead and lost 5-1 to Montreal in the last 10 minutes of the game.
"The people laugh at these things I do," says Watson. "They say, that Watson he's a real screwball; Little Napoleon, Hitler, Charlemagne. But the Rangers shall have the last laugh.... We shall make the playoffs."
Actually, Watson is no Napoleon. He turned out not to be much of a prophet either. This volatile compound of Captain Bligh and Doctor Spock does demean but also babies the erratic Rangers. Under his guidance they have looked wonderful on some evenings and horrid on others.