At sundown last Saturday the number of hours remaining in the National Hockey League's frantic East Division race had dwindled to a very few, and it was high time for a moment's reflection. The possibilities contained in the final games of the weekend were mind-mangling. One of four teams—Boston, Chicago, Detroit or Montreal—could finish in first place. Boston and Chicago could finish as low as fourth, while Detroit or Montreal could drop to fifth and miss out on the Stanley Cup playoffs entirely. New York, meanwhile, was in fifth place but could wind up as high as third. Also possible were two-team ties for the championship between Boston- Chicago, Boston- Detroit, Detroit- Chicago, Detroit- Montreal or Montreal-Boston, and three-team ties among Boston- Chicago- Detroit or Boston- Detroit- Montreal. What madness.
Derek Sanderson, the mod center of the Boston Bruins, assessed the situation perfectly. "These two games this weekend," he said, "will mean the difference between spending the summer on Cape Cod or on the Italian Riviera. And I'd go big on the Italian Riviera."
The top contenders for first place, of course, were the Bruins and the Chicago Black Hawks, who were tied for the lead with 95 points—two more than Detroit, three more than Montreal and five more than New York. Boston was favored—at least on paper—because of its home-and-home series with the last-place Toronto Maple Leafs, and though Boston had not won a regular-season game at Maple Leaf Gardens since 1965, the Bruins were, as they say, hungry. Meanwhile the Black Hawks would have to play home-and-home with the defending champion Montreal Canadiens, who never lose both games of such a series. Do they, Toe Blake?
The Bruins were loose and talkative as they drove to Saturday night's game. Center Phil Esposito, the league's No. 2 scorer behind Bobby Orr, had injured his back in Friday's practice and was a doubtful starter, but this would not be a weekend for excuses. "Tell the driver," said Coach Harry Sinden, "to stop in the Italian section and get me a couple of guys Esposito's size to play tonight. They got to be left shots, too."
Esposito did play, however, and scored after only 2:31 of the first period. Seven minutes later, after goals by Orr, Ken Hodge and Sanderson, Boston led 4-0. "Let them show that score in Montreal," the Boston players thought. "Yeah, that will show 'em."
They did show the Boston score at the Montreal Forum, but the Black Hawks never looked at it. Chicago trounced Montreal 4-1, while the Bruins defeated Toronto 4-2, and the two clubs still were tied for the lead.
" Chicago beat us and beat us good," said the Canadiens' Bobby Rousseau. Jean Beliveau, captain of the Canadiens said, "They handled us perfectly. They had two men on the puck carrier every time." In the late moments of the game Bobby Hull had a wide smile on his face as he stole the puck from Montreal forwards. At one point, with an empty net in front of him, Hull passed up a certain goal to maintain possession of the puck and kill the clock.
Rousseau offered another explanation for the Black Hawks' astounding success this year: "Last year, remember, they finished in sixth place, and a man named Dissension played left wing for them. I noticed that when Dennis Hull got his 100th goal tonight he skated over and gave the puck to [Coach] Billy Reay to keep for him. You always give the puck to the trainer in a case like that. That must mean there is more togetherness between Reay and his players than anyone can ever imagine."
On the Bruins' flight after Saturday's game, Sinden and Orr applauded the Hawks' victory. "No complaints from me," the coach said. "We went into Montreal last Wednesday and the Canadiens bombed us. Chicago went in there tonight and bombed the Canadiens. They did what we didn't do." Orr agreed, "We didn't do it."
The Red Wings, who had missed the playoffs the last three seasons, drank champagne Saturday night after routing New York 6-2 to assure themselves a position no lower than third. Led by the Medicare twins, Gordie Howe and Alex Delvecchio, and a rejuvenated Frank Mahovlich, the Wings lost only two of 18 games in their run for a playoff spot.