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Stan Mikita, the leading scorer in the National Hockey League, leaned back on the bench in front of his locker in the Black Hawks' dressing room last Saturday afternoon and started to pull off his red-and-black jersey. The shirt was heavy with sweat; Mikita struggled to get it over his head. "It's been a long time since I've been this drenched after a game," he said. "I guess we worked pretty hard today."
Mikita and his linemates, Kenny Wharram and Doug Mohns, had just played one of their finest games to help the Hawks beat the New York Rangers, 3-1, and tie their Stanley Cup playoff series at two games apiece. "Did you win this game because you worked harder than they did?" Mikita was asked. "Oh, everybody worked hard in this one," he said. "I think you'll find some pretty tired guys in the other locker room, too."
Both the Hawks and Rangers had good reason to be exhausted last week as they fought through a series that was easily the most exciting of the four Stanley Cup semifinals. The second-place Rangers entered the playoffs as solid favorites over the slumping Hawks, and New York did win the first two games. But Chicago dramatically regained its best form and won the next three. The Hawks were a superior team in their first two victories and a lucky one in the third, which was decided by rookie Bob Schmautz' fluke 90-foot goal. That Sunday night win in New York brought the Hawks close—but the issue was still in doubt. Both teams were showing their sellout crowds the way hockey can be played when $7,500 a man is at stake.
The other first-round East series was disappointing. The Boston Bruins, who had hoped to use their size and strength to overpower the swifter Montreal Canadiens, did little hard hitting and even less shooting and dropped four straight. Harry Sinden, the young coach who led Boston into the playoffs for the first time in eight years, admitted sadly, "A lot of us found out what Stanley Cup play is all about—including myself."
In the West, as the week ended, both the series were tight. The Philadelphia Flyers, who had won the expansion pennant, suffered a disastrous offensive slump and fell behind the St. Louis Blues, 3-1, but on Saturday found the net again and crushed the Blues 6-1. In the other West series the Los Angeles Kings held a 3-2 lead over Minnesota. It could have been a runaway for the Kings, who swept the first two games, but they blew two-goal leads in consecutive games in Minnesota before squeaking to a 3-2 win on Saturday back in Los Angeles.
The element that set the Ranger-Black Hawk series apart, however, was not the tightness of the race but the quality of play. "It's very unusual," said Hawk Defenseman Pat Stapleton, "to see two teams going so well at one time. I don't think anyone can say he's had a bad series. The team that wins will know it really accomplished something."
Striking contrasts between the teams and coaches made the Ranger-Hawk confrontation fascinating. New York came into the series on a winning streak; Chicago had failed to win in its last six regular-season games. The Rangers were deep and well balanced, while the Hawks seemed to be leaning too heavily on a few men—most notably Hull, who was required to play left wing on his own line, center another line, lead power plays and kill penalties.
Coach Emile Francis had a clearcut strategy for a Ranger victory, and he was supremely confident that it would work. His attitude was contagious, and his players were cool and relaxed off the ice. Billy Reay, on the other hand, was nervous and ill-tempered as he juggled his lines with an air of desperation. The Hawks themselves seemed tense and subdued as the series began. "We know now that we're a better team than they are," Mohns said after Saturday's fourth game. "But we finished fourth and they were second, so we had to have some doubts when we started."
Francis' plan was fairly simple: Phil Goyette, Bob Nevin and Don Marshall, good defensive forwards, would hold their own against Mikita's line. Ron Stewart would shadow Bobby Hull all over the ice, cutting down the effectiveness of Bobby's line. And Jean Ratelle and Rod Gilbert would be free to lead the New York scoring.
The strategy worked well for two games, partly because of the burden that Reay placed on Hull. Bobby, as usual, was willing to play 60 minutes a game to help the Hawks. "I enjoy the responsibility," he said. But he played so much in the first two games that he tired slightly, and Stewart checked him so closely that he seldom broke loose to lead the offensive rushes the Hawks needed. "Every time I get the puck, he's there," Bobby said. "Just once I'd like to be able to skate freely."