Like many that have come before and after, the Ranger’s 1969-70 season was a roller coaster ride from start to finish.
The Blueshirts had spent the first 3 ½ months of the season in first place, posting an impressive 32-11-11 record. But in late February they lost star defenseman Brad Park to a fractured ankle and it was all downhill from there. They went into a 6-11-5 tailspin which included a nine game winless streak. And, as the season drew to a close, the Rangers were in danger of missing the playoffs for the first time in three years.
Entering the final weekend of the season, the Rangers were in fifth place, two points behind Montreal for the fourth and final playoff spot in the NHL’s Eastern Division. The Rangers were scheduled for a home and home series against Detroit while Montreal had two games against Chicago. If the Rangers could win both games against the Red Wings, and the Canadiens got less than three points out of their games with the Black Hawks, they would move into the final playoff spot.
But these are the Rangers, and nothing ever comes easy. They were drubbed 6-2 in Detroit, the Red Wings clinching third place with the victory. But as luck would have it, the Canadiens lost as well, 4-1 to the Black Hawks.
So with just one game remaining, the best the Rangers could do was tie Montreal for the last playoff spot. But to do that, they would need to beat Detroit at the Garden on Sunday afternoon while the Canadiens would have to lose again to Chicago. That would put the two teams in a virtual dead heat with the same number of Wins, Losses and Ties. The next tie-breaker would be goals scored and Montreal already had a four goal edge going into Sunday’s game. The Rangers would not only need to beat Detroit, they’d have to score at least five goals and hope that Chicago would not only beat but also shut down the Flying Frenchmen. Quite a task indeed, but Ranger Coach and General Manager Emile Francis wasn’t giving up. “This game is slippery. It’s played on ice”, he told reporters after the game. “We’re not out yet, and we won’t stop fighting until the last soldier is dead.”
The general consensus among the players was that if they could score nine goals, they would have a chance at finishing with more goals than Montreal. However, throughout the entire season the most the Blueshirts had scored in any game was eight goals in November in Oakland. Additionally they had gone 3-10-7 in their previous 17 games, while scoring only 33 goals, for an average of 1.94 goals per game.
So the mood was somber as the players entered their dressing room at the Garden for the Easter Sunday matinee, which was being televised nationally.
But Francis wasn’t going down without a fight. “I’ve been in sports a number of years”, he told the players, “and I’ve seen athletes with their backs against the wall and I’ve seen funny things happen. If you can score six, seven, eight goals, this is one of those times when funny things could happen.” Francis then went around the room asking each player, “Do you think it’s impossible?” and each player responded, “No it’s not.”
Eddie Giacomin and Ron Stewart started chattering “C’mon guys, we can do it…Gotta get ’em early.” Giacomin then started asking his teammates “How many you gonna score?” “I got two goals” said Dave Balon, “I’ll take two” said Stewart. Jean Ratelle and Rod Gilbert each put themselves down for two goals apiece. “If we can get 4 goals in the first period, we can make it,” Ratelle added.
The Rangers’ intensity was evident from the opening faceoff. They swarmed the Detroit zone and Walt Tkaczuk nearly scored at the 18 second mark. The onslaught continued and Rod Gilbert put the first Rangers goal past Roger Crozier with just 36 seconds gone on the clock. Crozier was in net because Marv Edwards, the Wings regular starting goaltender was in the dressing room on the trainer’s table nursing a “headache”. In fact many Red Wing players were a little “under the weather” due to their clinching celebration the night before.
Detroit managed to tie the score less than three minutes later, but then rookie Jack Egers, playing in place of the injured Vic Hadfield, scored on a power-play. Balon followed with another power-play goal. Egers then scored again with two minutes left to play. Unbelievably the Rangers, who had not scored as many as three goals in a period in two months, had scored four goals and outshot the Red Wings 17-7.
The onslaught continued in the second period as Francis shortened the shifts from 90 seconds to a minute, to keep the Red Wings on their heels. Gilbert scored his second goal of the game 20 seconds into the period. Alex Delvecchio scored for Detroit at the four minute mark, but Ron Stewert, scored twice, equaling his pre-game prediction. Pete Stemkowski later scored for Detroit as the period ended with the Rangers leading 7-3, having once again outshot the Red Wing, this time by a 22-8 margin.
In the third period, Francis shortened the shifts to 45 seconds as the Rangers continued to fire shots at Crozier from every angle. Balon scored his second and third goals of the game, making the score 9-3. With less than four minutes to play, Francis started pulling Giacomin for an extra skater in an effort to score even more goals. Gordie Howe and Nick Libett each scored into the empty net, making it a 9-5 final with the Rangers outshooting the Wings by a 65-22 margin, a record that still stands today.
The Rangers did what they needed to do; win and score a lot of goals. The victory left the Rangers and Canadiens tied with 38 wins and 92 points each. However the Rangers led in the goals scored tie breaker by a 246-242 margin. Now it was up to Chicago to beat Montreal while keeping the defending Stanley Cup Champions off the scoreboard. If Montreal won or scored more than four goals, they would make the playoffs and the Rangers would be going home.
Luckily for the Rangers Chicago also had a big stake in the game as well. They were in a dogfight with Boston for the top spot in the Eastern Division. If the Black Hawks won they would finish in first place. If they lost and Boston won their game against Toronto, Chicago would finish in second place. Either way, the Black Hawks made quite a turnaround after finishing dead last the season before,
That night both players and fans alike tried to keep tabs on the Chicago – Montreal game the old fashioned way, with their transistor radios. Since the Chicago station didn’t start broadcasting the game until the second period, most fans found the Montreal station with Danny Gallivan doing play-by-play, but only if they could find the right spot and hold the radio at the right angle. Even then reception was poor. Rangers President Bill Jennngs called Black Hawk chairman Arthur Wirtz and asked him to put the radio by the phone so he could listen. Francis was able to get the game on the radio, but could only listen briefly before needing to get up and take a walk to relieve the tension. Most of the players were either able to listen to the game or arranged to telephone each other with developments.
In Chicago, the Canadiens jumped out to a 1-0 lead on a power-play goal. The Black Hawks tied it up a few minutes later and scored another goal as the period ended with Chicago leading 2-1.
In the second period, the teams each scored a goal and Chicago still lead at the end of the period by a 3-2 score. Between periods, the Blackhawks learned that Boston had beaten Toronto, so they know that they must beat the Canadiens to finish in first place.
The Black Hawks came out storming in the final period and Pit Martin scored two goals to make the score 5-2. Montreal coach Claude Ruel decided to pull goalie Rogie Vachon for an extra skater in an effort to score the three goals needed to overtake the Rangers. The move backfires badly as Chicago scored five empty net goals and won 10-2.
The Rangers made the playoffs, Chicago finished in first place and the Montreal Canadiens missed the playoffs for the first time in 22 years.
Television and radio stations broadcast the news: “The Rangers Make the Playoffs.” Some stations even interrupted regular programming with the story. As Francis told reporters, “It was like we won the Stanley Cup.”
Unfortunately, the momentum from the Rangers frantic finish didn’t carry over into the playoffs. They lost their first round match-up with Boston four games to two. The Bruins eventually won the Stanley Cup a few weeks later.
But at least for one long weekend, the Rangers gave their fans a roller coaster ride that we’ll never forget.