The Wildest Finish

By HOWARD BERGER

TORONTO (Apr. 5) — I’ve been known, through the years, for a savant–like memory with respect to dates and sporting events. It helps to have vivid recollection when writing so frequently on your own website. But, even those with moderate recall may perk up when reminded of 45 years ago today and tonight — Sunday, April 5, 1970 — and arguably the wildest finish ever to a regular season in the National Hockey League.

In 1969–70 — the third year of expansion — the NHL was comprised of 12 teams. Pre–expansion clubs were in the East Division: Boston, Chicago, Detroit, New York (Rangers), Montreal and Toronto. The newer teams were in the West Division: Los Angeles, Minnesota, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Oakland and St. Louis. The top four clubs in each Division advanced to the Stanley Cup playoffs, of which there were three rounds. In the Cup quarterfinals, it was 1 vs. 3 and 2 vs. 4 in each Division. Oakland secured the fourth and final playoff spot in the West with 58 points — same as Philadelphia. But, the Seals had more wins than the Flyers (22–17) and clinched a quarterfinal berth when Philly lost at home, 1–0, to Minnesota on the final Saturday of the schedule (Apr. 4). The North Stars drubbed the Penguins, 5–1, at Pittsburgh on Sunday night to finish third in the West, two points ahead of Oakland.

By comparison, the East Division was a mess heading into the season’s last day. Three games were on the schedule (Detroit at New York in the afternoon; Toronto at Boston; Montreal at Chicago at night) and all had playoff implication. The arithmetic here requires some focus, so prevent your mind, if you can, from wandering. The big stories involved Detroit, New York and Montreal. The Red Wings hammered the Rangers, 6–2, on Saturday night at the Detroit Olympia to clinch one of the four Eastern playoff berths. Merrily into the Stanley Cup tournament, coach Sid Abel of the Red Wings allowed his players to guzzle champagne on a 45–minute post–game flight to New York for the Sunday afternoon season finale — to be telecast nationwide by CBS. Sid’s boys apparently continued to guzzle well after reaching their Manhattan hotel and were in absolutely no condition to play a hockey game the following day.

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ARNIE BROWN (LEFT) AND JEAN RATELLE OF NEW YORK SWARM DETROIT GOALIE ROGER CROZIER IN 1969–70 SEASON FINALE AT MADISON SQUARE GARDEN. RANGERS HAMMERED THE HUNG–OVER RED WINGS, 9–5. CROZIER WAS PEPPERED WITH 65 SHOTS.

This came as dreadful news to the Canadiens, who lost, 4–1, at home to the Black Hawks on Saturday night and led New York by only two points, 92–90. The Habs flew to Chicago afterward for their season finale, not knowing how important it might be. With Chicago, Boston and Detroit in the playoffs, Montreal had to either stay ahead of the Rangers to become the fourth Eastern qualifier or finish tied with New York at 92 points and ahead in total goals scored (the next tie–breaker). The Canadiens, therefore, watched in horror as New York obliterated the hung–over Red Wings, 9–5, in the Madison Square Garden matinee. That evened the Rangers and Montreal at 92 points. The scoring eruption, however, gave New York a 246–242 season’s edge over Montreal in goals. With a 9–3 lead and 3:38 to play, Rangers coach Emile Francis pulled goalie Ed Giacomin for an extra attacker to try and add to the season goal–scoring lead over Montreal. Instead, the Red Wings countered with a pair of meaningless empty–net markers (New York peppered beleaguered Red Wings goalie Roger Crozier with 65 shots).

This now meant the Canadiens had three options: a) defeat the Black Hawks and finish two points ahead of New York; b) play to a draw at Chicago to gain one point in the standings, thereby edging New York 93–92 or c) fall to the Blackhawks by any margin providing they score at least five goals to reach 247 on the schedule (one more than New York). Montreal could have lost 21–5 and eliminated the Rangers.

Are you still with me?

The wildcard in all of this was at Boston Garden, where the Bruins defeated Toronto, 3–1, in a game that began 90 minutes before Montreal at Chicago. It moved Boston ahead of Chicago in points, 99–97, and into first place in the East. The Hawks, however, had four more victories than the Bruins on the season (44–40). A win over the Habs would clinch top spot. The game, therefore, meant everything to Chicago.

Appropriately fired up, the Black Hawks entered the third period with a 4–2 lead over Montreal, which meant the Habs had to score at least three goals in the final 20 minutes — to win the game 5–4; tie 5–5 (if Chicago scored again) or lose by any margin providing they counted the minimum five goals. Montreal coach Claude Ruel felt he had no option other than to pull goalie Rogatien Vachon for much of the final frame, hoping an extra attacker would generate the necessary output. Instead, the move backfired spectacularly. Chicago scored five empty–net goals to win the match, 10–2, and eliminate the Canadiens from the playoffs.

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THE CRAZY FINAL WEEK — AND WEEKEND — OF THE 1969–70 NHL SEASON.

These mathematical permutations did not come to light until some years later. I was only 11 at the time and my “savant” memory of Apr. 5, 1970 is attending a wrestling show at Maple Leaf Gardens. Main event: The Sheik vs. Flying Fred Curry. My pal Jeff Spiegelman and I had ringside seats. Flying Fred was a good guy; his dad — Wild Bull Curry — a heel. The Sheik, despised by all, hacked open Flying Fred’s scalp with a foreign object. Wild Bull then tore into the ring on behalf of his bloodied son. Which — not coincidentally — set up the following week’s main event; an all–heel affair between The Sheik and Wild Bull Curry.

But, I digress.

From a hockey perspective, I remember watching New York’s annihilation of Detroit on CBS in the afternoon; then listening on CBC Radio to the Montreal at Chicago game after the wrestling show while being driven home from the Gardens by either my Dad or Jeff’s (that, I’ve forgotten). The late, great Fred Sgambati was calling the match from Chicago Stadium and we couldn’t believe the goals that were poring into Montreal’s vacated net in the desperate third period.

It all happened 4½ short decades ago tonight.

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2 comments on “The Wildest Finish

  1. There was speculation that the Red Wings tanked to help the Rangers and put the ’69 Cup champion Habs out of the playoff picture…a benefit to Detroit and everybody else. Frank Mahovlich wrote that Red Wing management did a disservice to the team by coasting into the playoffs…which he believes led to the Wings losing their competitive edge and coasting out in 4 straight.

    There was also speculation that the Rangers waiving Eddie Giacomin to the Wings in 1975 was a belated ‘thank you’…

    Tanking in the NHL isn’t new. The performance of the North Stars late in the 1970-71 season led to the league changing the 1st vs 3rd and 2nd vs 4th playoff setup to the more common sense 1-4, 2-3 pairings.

    1971 also brought the cross division format to the semi-finals- this was designed to end the anti-climactic Original 6 vs expansion 4-0 final sweeps of ’68, ’69 & ’70. The result was the two strongest teams, Chicago and New York, punched each other out for 7 games while the lower ranking Habs drew the much weaker North Stars.

  2. It makes the supposed debacle of the games between Buffalo & Arizona look tame by comparison…

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