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After Montreal had beaten off the Wings' one and only challenge, two races were left: the struggle between Toronto, Boston and Chicago for fourth place and the last playoff spot, and the fight for second between the Wings and the New York Rangers. (That is not a misprint; it is the Rangers.) The NHL's curious playoff system, of course, calls for the team that finishes first to play a best-four-of-seven-games series with the third-place team, for the second-and fourth-place clubs to engage in a similar series, and then for a final best-of-seven round between the two winners. The glory and the bigger money the players receive for finishing second have naturally played a part in the battle for the runner-up spot between the Wings and the Rangers. However, the major consideration for both teams has been the knowledge that finishing third means meeting the Canadiens immediately in the playoffs—and who wants to do that! (Should the Rangers reach the final round of the playoffs, the sports world may again be treated to that unique arrangement whereby the circus plays at Madison Square Garden and the Rangers play their home games on some foreign rink.)
RISE OF THE RANGERS
Regardless of how the Rangers fare from this point in, there is little question that Phil Watson has been the coach of the year. Only once since the war have the Rangers succeeded in qualifying for the playoffs, and this year it looked as if they would be lucky, as the man said, to finish as high as the cellar.
Oh, you will hear a lot of hockey buffs asserting now that they had a sneaking suspicion all along that the Rangers were just about ready to catch fire, just as you always meet your Hindsight Harrys prognosticating after the event that, say, Fleck was their choice to beat Hogan and the Monitor was a shoo-in, if you really knew your ironclad vessels, to wallop the Merrimac. Personally, I remember meeting only one hockeyman who, before the season started, picked the Rangers to finish fifth or higher, and I have a strong suspicion that it was not a cool assessment but was prompted by the dazzling fact that he was introduced to Ching Johnson at a party during the off season and split a beer with him.
The main reason why such gloomy prospects were entertained for the Rangers this year was that practically the same old roster was returning. This included only four players of proven major league caliber: Lewicki, Hergesheimer, Howell and Gadsby. For the rest, with the exception of Dave Creighton, acquired from the Wings, whom did they have?
They had, or seemed to have, nothing but the same bunch of youngsters who had previously displayed little else than youth; and today sports fans have learned that just because a player is young is no assurance that he is going to develop into a fine athlete. (They are also wise to the fact that one of the neatest dodges in sports today is pulled by the managers who take themselves off the spot by embarking on perennial youth-movement programs.) Well, a good many of the Rangers' youngsters did mature into good hockey players this year, and for this the credit goes 1) to the players themselves, 2) to Frank Boucher, who rounded them up, and 3) to Watson.
The secret of Watson's success would seem to be the surging pride he took in being a member of the great New York teams before the war. Being a Ranger was the biggest thing in the life of this turbulent, combative young man, the son of a French-Canadian mother and a Scottish-Canadian father, who spent 11 of his formative years as the sole Montreal Maroon fan in a boarding school where only French was spoken and the Canadiens naturally idolized. When his playing days with the Rangers ended after the 1947-48 season, Watson went into coaching. During his seven years in the minors (three with the New York Rovers and four with the Quebec Citadels, later the Frontenacs), the decline of the Rangers grieved him bitterly. " 'My Rangers!' I used to say to myself," Watson was remembering recently. " 'My Rangers! Look what they have become. Doormats, not champions. No one respects them.' " Watson's eye was always on returning to New York, and the knowledge that a hotheaded coach would never be hired was a big factor in his successful conquest of his temper. The call came last spring.
From the start of preseason practice at Saskatoon, Watson treated his players as major leaguers. After all, they were Rangers. He also treated them rough. When Andy Bathgate arrived driving a Cadillac, Watson quickly reminded him and the other players that, in case they had other ideas, during the hockey season hockey came first, morning, noon and night. When Gump Worsley reported overweight, Watson told him, "You have no right to come into training camp weighing 172. You're not that big a man." He threatened to fine the goalie a dollar a pound a day until he got down to 167. Watson has not let up all season. For example, he has abolished the practice of supplying the players with drinking water on the bench. "And we don't have any of that sucking-on-oranges nonsense between periods," Watson explains. "If we're leading by a couple of goals with four minutes left to play, then, maybe, the water comes out." Nothing much escapes Watson's vigilant eye. After a game on the road, he took two players aside in the dressing room. "I don't know if you guys thought you were getting away with it," he admonished them, "but I saw you sneaking that drink of water when you were in the penalty box."
Watson's somewhat McGravian manner has worked because his players perceived that he labored harder at winning than any of them. His hatred of losing became contagious. He built three capable forward lines based on three capable centers—he was a center himself. Early in the season he was rapped with two bench penalties but after that directed the team with poise and shrewdness. He should be around for quite a while.
There is not too much that can be said about the "second-division" clubs, who, it goes without saying, had all hoped for better seasons. Dick Irvin (SI, Feb. 13)got his Black Hawks off to a fast start but even the "Silver Fox's" experience and knowledgeability couldn't convert his collection of castoffs into a functioning unit. Injuries hurt the Hawks but certainly not as much as the continued lack of one or two truly topnotch players to pick up the whole team with their play. Milt Schmidt's Bruins, suffering similarly from injuries and an absence of on-the-ice leadership, went into an alarming midseason nosedive that almost eliminated them from contention then and there. They came back miraculously after Gerry Toppazzini and Real Chevrefils, both of whom could do nothing right for Detroit, were repurchased in January and went off on scoring sprees. The Bruins played better hockey the second half of the season but their defense was still porous. Terry Sawchuk's first year with Boston brought home with a bang that even the most brilliant goalie can be beaten frequently if the opposing team is allowed to swarm en masse for the rebounds.