It is one of the rites of spring in New York, like dodging potholes in the streets and mailing a deposit for the summer cottage out in the Hamptons. As the snow melts each year the Rangers skate boldly into the Stanley Cup playoffs and then skate quickly and quietly out of them. Most seasons the Rangers do not even stay around town long enough to compete with opening day at the baseball parks and the golf courses. In fact, since they last won the cup 32 years ago, the Rangers have survived the first round of the playoffs only twice. And now—horrors—here were those dastardly Montreal Canadiens waiting to ravage them once again.
Why pick on New York? Couldn't the Canadiens pull a John Lindsay for once and drop out? Weren't 10 Stanley Cups in 16 years enough? What else did they want, the city? They hadn't lost a playoff series to a team from the United States in 10 years. And look what they did to Boston and Chicago last spring.
Funny thing, though, despite the great Hab Hex the Rangers thought they were going to beat the Canadiens. And all things considered, even with Center Jean Ratelle, their most important player, still sidelined because of a cracked bone above his right ankle, the time was right. No longer did Montreal have Jean Beliveau to dazzle them or Mean John Ferguson to brutalize them. Sure, Ken Dry-den would be in goal for Montreal, but the Rangers had lost only one game to the Canadiens all year—a meaningless 6-5 skatefest the last day of the season—and had scored almost live goals a game against Dryden while the rest of the league had averaged two. Before the first game Wednesday night, scalpers were getting $120 for a pair of $13 tickets that offered both a terrible view of the ice and the fragrant aroma of circus elephants, compliments of Ringling Bros, and Barnum & Bailey.
Inside Madison Square Garden the Canadiens easily found the way to their dressing room by following the circus signs that said CLOWNS. Coach Scotty Bowman was nervous as his players dressed. "It's strange," he said, looking out onto the ice. " New York beat us all year, and we beat Boston and Boston killed New York. The only way we can beat New York now is to play like Boston does. We've got to stop the Rangers at center ice and not let them get their passing game going. But my guys don't play like that. The forwards don't come back and check, and the defense-men back in on Dryden. If we play like that we won't be around very long."
For his part, Emile Francis, the little boss of the Rangers, was preparing a surprise for Bowman and Yvan Cournoyer, the speedy right wing who scored 47 goals for the Canadiens during the season. Francis realized that none of the Rangers he had used regularly was quick enough to derail Cournoyer on his swoops around the rink. The only Ranger who could accelerate with Cournoyer was Gene Carr, a 20-year-old rookie who was playing in Flin Flon, Manitoba a year ago. Normally Francis takes the George Allen approach to youth: he uses his kids only as a last resort. Indeed, for the playoffs he had reacquired two of the Rangers' old smoothies: Ron Stewart, 39, and Phil Goyette, 38. But now he was going to have Carr check Cournoyer, or at least try to.
At the start Bowman felt he had to assign an exclusive shadow to only one Ranger, Left Wing Vic Hadfield, who had scored 50 goals. The obvious choice was Rejean (Peanuts) Houle, the pesky wing who covered Bobby Hull so effectively in last year's cup. However, there is one basic difference between Hull and Hadfield. Hull rarely resorts to physical retaliation over a checker's attentions. Hadfield does. If Houle planned to shackle Hadfield the way he harassed Hull—an elbow here, a stick there—then his body eventually would bear some marks, too. Nothing illegal, of course. Just fun and games. As it developed, Peanuts Houle took an early penalty in the first game for slashing Hadfield, and after that he was just plain ineffective.
Until this season Hadfield had never scored more than 26 goals. The instant he got the puck on his curved stick he would fire it. Occasionally it went in; most of the time it landed in Section B, Row C, Seat 4 of the mezzanine. "I always got a lot of oohs and ahs," Hadfield said, "but I didn't get many goals." So Hadfield changed his style and learned to sneak around behind the defensemen and wait for crisp passes from Ratelle and Right Wing Rod Gilbert. Of his 50 goals, at least 35 were scored from less than five feet away. "He scored 10 goals against us during the year—seven or eight against me," Dryden said. "The longest was no more than four feet. Nowadays most players prefer to shoot from 40 feet out or farther, and here's Hadfield with 10 goals that probably don't add up to 40 feet."
The score was tied 1-1 near the end of the first period, and there was Hadfield on Dryden's doorstep as Bobby Rousseau, who replaced Ratelle at center, stole the puck in the corner. "Bobby!" Hadfield screamed in a voice that could be heard 40 rows away. Rousseau obediently drilled the puck across the crease and Hadfield fired it behind Dryden. "Another four-footer," the goaltender mumbled.
Frank Mahovlich tied the score 2-2 early in the third period, and for a time it appeared that the teams would skate into overtime. Enter J.C. Tremblay. After Dryden he is Montreal's make-or-break player. On some nights he is J.C. Superstar; on others he is J.C. Snowshoes. In Montreal he usually is the former; on the road, the latter. As one Canadien player said, "Sometimes J.C. forgets to pack his courage when we go on the road."
Yet it was Tremblay who risked his life to save others from a hotel fire in St. Louis this year, a fire from which Bowman himself narrowly escaped.