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As the week began, the loosest player in the National Hockey League's tightest playoff race ever was Derek Sanderson, 23, center of the Boston Bruins. He awoke in a mod, round bed undreamed of in his street-fighting, high school-dropout days, picked up a phone from the white sheepskin rug and dialed his answering service. Little Joe, as Sanderson is sometimes called, had received no messages in the night from his idol, Big Joe Namath. Sanderson ran a brush over his razor-cut hair, put on a pair of flowered bell-bottoms and a shirt the color of orange sherbet and walked outside to his gold 1970 Continental Mark III. The plates read BRUINS 16. "They're welded on," said the Bruins' No. 16. "They'd be stolen every day if they weren't."
Derek drove to practice at Harvard's Watson Rink. In the dressing room Coach Harry Sinden announced a change of travel plans for Wednesday's game in New York: the Bruins would fly out that night instead of the next morning because of the air controllers' slowdown. Sanderson was annoyed. "I had a date with Jackie tonight," he said. "No, with Susan; I forgot. Jackie was the backup."
In Chicago that morning the Black Hawks' rookie defenseman Keith Magnuson (see cover) studied the bathroom mirror. He saw worry in the eyes looking back from his choir-boy face. He slicked down his Huck Finn mop of red hair and examined the bruise over his left eye. Keith Magnuson, 23, late of Denver University and wars with Michigan Tech and Cornell; overnight a man of heavy responsibility with a contender for the NHL championship. Boston a point ahead. Gotta beat Detroit next. Gotta stop Gordie Howe.
Magnuson shook his roommate, Cliff Koroll, awake and in a while drove somberly to practice in his sporty white 1970 Olds. Coach Billy Reay was having travel troubles, too. The Hawks would fly to Detroit that night, not the next afternoon. A couple of players were caught with their topcoats at the cleaners. Bobby Hull offered his to Gerry Pinder, who quickly discovered just how muscular the Golden Jet really is. The shoulders were down to here, the sleeves up to there. Bobby broke up. Magnuson managed a thin grin.
In New York, Sanderson checked in at the Bruins' hotel, then took a taxi to Bachelors III. Big Joe, former part owner, was not there. Sanderson had a fast meal and beat Sinden's 11:15 p.m. curfew. At noon the next day he was back at Bachelors III with Gary Doak, a Boston defenseman. and the brothers Orr, Bobby and 15-year-old Doug, who was on a school holiday and traveling with the Bruins as gatekeeper and alternate stick boy. They ate steaks and discussed the enemy. "The Rangers can't afford to lose tonight," said Bobby. "If they do, they'll probably miss the playoffs."
"They'll be gone, Bobby," said Derek.
Boston had not defeated an East Division team on the road all season, but that didn't bother Derek. "When we go out and hit the other team early," he said, "we usually win. We haven't been doing that on the road. But wait and see, there will be a lot of fights tonight."
Sanderson went to Times. Square to find the movie M*A*S*H, then to Madison Square Garden. During the pregame warmup the New York crowd waved rubber chickens at Sanderson and the Bruins. Boston's Wayne Cashman grabbed one and brought it into the dressing room. Sanderson took it and hung it up in the center of the room. "We'll show 'em who's chicken," he snarled.
In the game's first minute Cashman charged a Ranger and was sent to the penalty box. Trying to play roughhouse themselves, the Rangers were hit with penalties. Boston promptly scored a pair of power-play goals. Later in the first period big Orland Kurtenbach gave Sanderson a solid elbow to the jaw in a scuffle behind the Boston goal. "He was out to get me."" Derek said. "Just watch. We'll go at it before long."
Early in the second period Kurtenbach scored from close in to make it 2-1. "I should have been on the ice against his line," Sanderson said, "but I was having some trouble. I was back in the dressing room vomiting." Moments after that goal Sanderson and Kurtenbach had their fight. Derek, who was conceding two inches and 25 pounds, did not win, but he probably deserved a draw. He skated to the penalty box with his arms raised high. "Look at him," Ranger Coach Emile Francis was heard to say. "I'd like to punch him in the nose."