For the owners of a hockey team, making the Stanley Cup playoffs is worth at least $250,000. For the players it means something like $2,500. Maybe the sign in the dressing room of the Philadelphia Flyers says it best: "Miss the playoffs and you spend the summer carrying a lunch bucket." This bit of harsh economic theory was an unnerving reality to live with for four teams—St. Louis, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and California—that last Wednesday were separated by only three points in the battle for the two remaining playoff spots in the West ( Chicago and Minnesota having clinched the top ones). Only 11 days of the regular season remained. "Now," said Philadelphia Goaltender Doug Favell, "is not the time to choke."
St. Louis was in the command position, one point ahead of California and three points in front of both Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. In addition, St. Louis was hyped up by a startling rescue job it had pulled off at Vancouver three days before. In that game the Blues were losing 3-1 with slightly less than two minutes left to play when Coach Al Arbour removed his goaltender for an extra shooter. "A million-to-one shot," Arbour admitted. Unbelievably, Frank St. Marseille and Phil Roberto both scored for St. Louis, enabling the Blues to escape with a tie—and an important point.
The California Seals were discouraged when they arrived in St. Louis for Wednesday night's game with the Blues. For one thing, they faced the worst schedule of the contending teams: four of their last five games would be on the road, and they would be spending three days in Philadelphia and then four days in Pittsburgh. "Plenty of time to sight-see," said Coach Vic Stasiuk. And to worry. For another, they had lost Ivan Boldirev, a tough rookie center who is California's most consistent forward, for the rest of the season with mononucleosis. "The only good thing that has happened around here," said one Seal, "is that Charlie Finley has been so wrapped up with Vida Blue he hasn't had time to bother us."
The Blues controlled play that night and beat the Seals easily 4-1. As a last display of superiority, two of the Plager brothers, Bob and Barclay, ganged up on Bob Stewart, a young defenseman for the Seals, in a melee as the game ended. "Just getting ready for the playoffs," Bob Plager said.
Meanwhile, in Pittsburgh the Penguins dissipated a 3-1 lead and lost to Buffalo 4-3. "Stupid mistakes ruined us," said red-faced Coach Red Kelly.
California flew into Philadelphia Thursday afternoon, and all the Seals watched the Flyers play the Chicago Black Hawks that night. Like the Seals, the Flyers were hurting. Favell had a bad back. No. 2 Goalie Bruce Gamble was recovering from a heart attack. No. 3 Goalie Bob Taylor had a bad catching hand. So the No. 4 goalie, Don McLeod, started against Bobby Hull and friends. Worse yet, Philadelphia's best player, 22-year-old Bobby Clarke, was hobbling around on a bruised ankle and it was doubtful that he would see any action. "Take Clarke out," Favell said, "and we're really in trouble."
Clarke had 30 goals and 42 assists for the Flyers and was the No. 2 scorer in the West, trailing only Hull. Earlier in the week the Flyers had signed him to a five-year, $600,000 contract. A modest star who normally says little, Clarke was eloquent enough to persuade Coach Fred Shero that he was fit to play against Chicago, even though it was obvious that he was moving at only three-quarter speed in the pregame skate. Upstairs, California's Vic Stasiuk was smiling. Chicago Coach Billy Reay was playing ace Goalie Tony Esposito against the Flyers, who had a fourth-stringer in the nets, and Clarke was injured. Perfect. "Now if they don't use Kate Smith," Stasiuk said, "we'll be all right."
Kate is the Flyers' not-so-secret weapon. When things are not going well for them, they switch from the national anthem to Kate's recording of God Bless America. Kate is 21-2-1 for the Flyers over the last three years, while The Star-Spangled Banner is only 25-35-26. Nevertheless, she did not sing before the Chicago game. Not surprisingly, the Flyers lost 4-2 and remained two points behind the Seals.
"If we don't beat California Saturday," Clarke said after the game, "we'll probably be out of the playoffs. We've played two less games than the Seals, but that doesn't matter much anymore. It's tough to make up points the last week of the season." The Flyers sent two of their scouts to watch the Seals practice at the University of Pennsylvania on Friday afternoon, a tactic that irritated California General Manager Garry Young. "That's bush," he said. "How can you work on new plays when they're taking notes?"
Philadelphia's Favell, who had played the third period of the Chicago game, hardly looked healthy as the teams warmed up Saturday night, but he was going to start anyway. "And he'd better come up with a big game," Coach Shero said.