Publish date:

These nice guys finish first

In a startling switch from their pugnacious tactics, mannerly but manly Philadelphia ousted New York from the Stanley Cup playoffs

It obviously pained him to mumble the words in praise of a hated rival. Defenseman Brad Park of the New York Rangers had been a prime target of the menacing Philadelphia Flyers, and now as he sat dejectedly on a dressing-room bench his body was a mass of welts and bruises and there were two ice bags strapped to his right knee. "I didn't think the Flyers could do it," Park said slowly, "but they finally beat us with a good, honest hockey game."

What Park meant was that the Broad Street Bullies forsook their shivs and spiked helmets last Sunday afternoon at the Spectrum in Philadelphia—as indeed they had in the two previous games—and removed the Rangers from the Stanley Cup playoffs with a cool, methodical 4-3 victory in the seventh and final battle of their Amtrak War (the cities are two hours apart by rail). There was only one fight, in which the Flyers' Dave Schultz thrashed Ranger Defenseman Dale Rolfe, sending him to the medical room for treatment. Instead of brawling and marauding, the Flyers wore down the Rangers with relentless forechecking over the first two periods as they took a 3-1 lead, and then relied on Bernie Parent's superior goaltending when the Rangers became aroused in the third period. Until then Parent was practically a spectator as the Flyers blitzed Ranger Goalie Eddie Giacomin, with about half of their shots labeled goal. But Giacomin, playing his finest cup series, repeatedly stymied the Flyer shooters with one acrobatic save after another. If Giacomin had not performed sensationally the Flyers would have had a rout after two periods instead of a 3-1 lead. "He kept us alive," said Defense-man Rod Seiling.

At 8:49 of the third period New York's Steve Vickers beat Parent with a short forehand flip from the front of the slot after taking a backhand pass from line-mate Walt Tkaczuk, and suddenly the Rangers were not only alive but kicking. But 12 seconds later Philadelphia struck again. The Flyers shot the puck into the Ranger end, where Park collected it and skated behind Giacomin. Rick MacLeish, the mercurial Flyer center, tracked Park down, banged him into the boards and knocked the puck loose. Ross Lonsberry picked it up, passed it to Gary Dornhoefer in front of the net—it seems he is always there—and before Giacomin could move, Dornhoefer whipped a high shot over his left shoulder.

Again the Rangers rallied, pelting Parent with shots and finally closing to within 4-3 at 14:34, when Pete Stemkowski beat him on a rebound. Staunchly, surely, Parent protected the slim lead, and thus the Flyers became the first expansion team ever to beat a member of the Establishment in the playoffs.

It had been tight and taut all the way. Earlier in the week the Flyers and Rangers had traded 4-1 victories in games that were uncannily similar. First Philadelphia and then New York, employing close-checking tactics, rallied from early 1-0 deficits and concluded the scoring with empty-net goals. But while the first four rounds had been marked by violence, destruction, bloodletting and vicious name-calling, these games were so serene—at least on the surface—that they could have passed for intra-squad scrimmages of the California Golden Seals. Not that the Flyers and the Rangers suddenly came to like each other, mind you. Asked if she would be inviting any Philadelphia players to dinner during the off-season, Park's wife Gerry bluntly replied, "I wouldn't invite them to our garage."

All things considered, however, it was not surprising that the brash and lippy Flyers were subdued when they checked in to their Spectrum dressing room before the start of the fifth game. For one thing, they knew they would have to wear their official Clarence Campbell-approved NHL gags, muzzles and good-guy sweat shirts the rest of the series. The NHL president was so incensed by Philadelphia's behavior in the early part of the series that he ordered the Broad Street Bullies to become the Broad Street Sweethearts. Campbell's timing was thought-provoking. Until then the NHL had tolerated Philadelphia's fighting approach because the Bullies filled buildings everywhere they played. The Flyers set single-game attendance records for the season in five NHL rinks, indicating that spectators—even in cities with supposedly purist fans, such as Montreal—prefer gladiators to hockey players. But when the New York-based national media began to focus on Philadelphia's lead-with-your-left style in the playoffs, the NHL put its clamps on Flyer Captain Bobby Clarke and friends.

Campbell's action stirred the anger of Ed Snider, board chairman of the Flyers. "The Boston Bruins used to triple-team us and beat us up," Snider said. "Why didn't people scream then? Oh, but now there's a whole new situation, and Campbell tells us this team must be controlled."

Moreover, there was a message on the Flyers' dressing-room blackboard: ASHCAN PHONED AT 5:30 WISHING US ALL GOOD LUCK TONIGHT. Though the message was cheerful, it was a sobering reminder that Philadelphia's top defense-man was out for the rest of the series. In the overtime period of the fourth game, in New York, shortly before Rod Gilbert's goal tied the series for the Rangers at two games apiece, Barry Ashbee had stopped a Dale Rolfe shot with his right eye and plunged to the ice. For a time it was feared that Ashbee would lose his sight in that eye. Fortunately the crisis passed, but he was still in the hospital with bandages over both eyes. "There are three players this team cannot afford to lose," said Clarke. "Bernie Parent, Rick MacLeish and Barry Ashbee."

Ashbee was lost, and now Clarke was trying to buck up MacLeish. Unlike most of his teammates, MacLeish suffers from a lack of confidence. He is Philadelphia's best skater and stickhandler and in the last two seasons has scored 50 and 32 goals, respectively, but he seems to think he should be playing for the Richmond Robins. "Maybe someone should tell him how good he is," Clarke said.

In the first two semifinal games, played at the Spectrum, MacLeish fired 11 shots at Giacomin and scored three goals. In New York he took only four shots in two games and never threatened the Ranger goaltender. So what did Clarke tell MacLeish? "He said I had to get off my rear," MacLeish reported.

While MacLeish was absorbing that advice, the fifth and sixth games pivoted on the play of the defensemen. "The Philadelphia defensemen are flat-footed," said Denis Ball, the jolly giant who is the No. 1 aide to Ranger boss Emile Francis. Indeed, except for rookie Jim Watson and Ashbee, the Flyers' regular defenders lack speed, mobility and puck-handling intelligence. "That hurts us at times because they can't get out of their own way," says Coach Fred Shero, "but they never let anyone stand around in front of Parent, and to me that's more important."

As the fifth game began, the Rangers crowded the Flyer defensemen whenever they touched the puck, double-teaming the corners and sealing off the normal escape routes. The strategy paid a prompt dividend as Stemkowski caught Moose Dupont out of position and beat Parent to give the Rangers a 1-0 lead. New York continued to smother the Philadelphia defensemen, twice breaking two forwards out against a lone defender and twice breaking three forwards against a single defender. Fortunately for the Flyers, Parent either made the necessary saves or the Rangers mishandled the puck.

Between the first and second periods an alarmed Shero consulted Assistant Coach Mike Nykoluk, who sits in the press box, makes notes, diagrams plays and checking tactics and gives a report to Shero at the end of every period. The result was a game-saving strategy.

After listening to Nykoluk, Shero instructed the Flyer defensemen to dispose of the puck posthaste, and ordered the Flyer forwards to come back and help out. He told the forwards to hound the Ranger defensemen at the other end of the ice to force them into the kind of mistakes the Flyer defensemen had made in the first period. Almost before the words were out of his mouth the Flyers tied the score on a goal by Tom Bladon, a young defensemen, of all people, who had moved into the five-man rotation because of Ashbee's absence. Later in the period Philadelphia got what proved to be the game-winning goal by following the familiar Dornhoefer plan.

Dornhoefer plays right wing on MacLeish's line, but on this occasion once the puck entered the New York zone he forgot about everything else and skated to Giacomin's doorstep, where the welcome mat is never out. "I tried to keep him preoccupied," Dornhoefer said blithely. So there was Dornhoefer skate-to-skate with Giacomin, his blades practically in the crease, and there was MacLeish circling around with the puck. "Shoot! Shoot!" Dornhoefer yelled to MacLeish. Without looking, MacLeish fired the puck along the ice toward Dornhoefer, who opened his skates slightly and let the puck slide between them. Poor Giacomin never realized what had happened until the puck was behind him and the red light was on.

Two nights later in New York, Giacomin took a headsman's swing at Dornhoefer with his big goaltender's stick when the Flyer cruised behind the Ranger net. "You see me getting dumped, but you don't see Parent getting dumped," Giacomin said bitterly, indirectly indicting his teammates for not keeping the area around the net a New York preserve. "If no one else is going to move their guys out of my way, my 180 pounds will do it." To further demonstrate his irritation, Giacomin slashed Ross Lonsberry with his stick and threw punches at Lonsberry with his gloves. Giacomin was given two minor penalties, but he had staked his claim and the Flyers did not bother him the rest of the game.

Meanwhile the Flyers inexplicably forgot how they beat New York in Philadelphia, and the Rangers suddenly remembered to do what they had done so well in that first period at the Spectrum. This time they maintained their pressure on the Flyer defensemen throughout the game. "That Dupont always coughed the puck up when we made him think," Francis said. So did the other Philadelphia defensemen.

Still, it was a 1-1 game for two periods as both Giacomin and Parent foiled attack after attack, with Giacomin stopping Clarke on three occasions and Parent preventing a New York romp with two dozen saves, some of them astounding. Finally Ron Harris snapped a screened wrist shot past Parent from 35 feet away to put the Rangers ahead and send the series back to Philadelphia.

On Sunday, when it was over and the Flyers were packing for Boston and the final round of the cup against Bobby Orr and the rest of the Bruins, Harris was glumly pondering the Amtrak Series. He repeated something Pete Stemkowski had said: "If we had to play 78 games a year against the Flyers, we'd all retire after one season, because we'd be all worn out."