Forty years ago, in the spring of 1974 the Ranges and Flyers met for the first time in the Stanley Cup playoffs. There have been many “Amtrak Series” since then, but the first one was quite memorable.
The Rangers and Flyers were headed in different directions that spring. The Blueshirts had peaked a few seasons earlier in 1971-1972 and were trending downward. Their core group of players was getting older and the fact that they made it to the post season was a surprise to many. They had gotten off to a rough start (18-14-9) under new coach Larry Popein and were in danger of falling out of playoff contention by mid-season. But when GM Emile Francis dismissed Popein and stepped back behind the bench in January the Blueshirts responded with a 17-2-3 run and lost only ten of their final
thirty seven games. They wound up in third place with 94 points, five points behind the second place Canadiens and 19 points behind the first place Bruins. The Blueshirts then went on the beat the Canadiens in the opening round of the playoffs 4-2.
The Flyers on the other hand, were a young, hungry team on the rise finishing in first place in the NHL’s Western Division with a 50-16-12 record. They had a potent offense led by Bobby Clarke, Rick MacLeish and Bill Barber and a steady group of defensemen that included Ed Van Impe, Jim and Joe Watson and Barry Ashbee. The Flyers also relied heavily on the superb netminding of Bernie Parent who posted a 47-13-12 record and a 1.89 GAA with 12 shutouts. Parent shared the Vezina Trophy with Chicago’s Tony Esposito and also won the Hart Trophy as the NHL’s Most Valuable Player.
Nicknamed “The Broad Street Bullies” Philadelphia was also the most physically intimidating team in the league with tough guys like Don Saleski, Bob Kelly and Dave Schultz who led the league with 348 penalty minutes. Shultz set the tone of the series early by telling reporters that he was “glad to be playing the Rangers because they always seem to choke in the playoffs.” Philadelphia had swept the Atlanta Flames 4-0 in the opening round of the playoffs.
The Rangers had won the season series from Philadelphia 2-1-2 and were 20-6-12 against them since the Flyers inception in 1967. However Rangers fans knew very well that regular season records tend to be meaningless once the playoffs start.
The Flyers won the first two games of the series in Philadelphia by 4-0 and 5-2 scores, pounding and pummeling the Rangers every chance they got.
But when the scene shifted to New York, so did the series’ momentum. The Blueshirts won Game 3 by a 5-2 score, outshooting the Flyers 39-15. The fourth game was a tighter affair that was tied at one goal apiece until Rod Gilbert scored in the first overtime period, evening the series.
In the fifth game, the Rangers scored early and controlled the play, limiting the Flyers to just five shots in the first period. But Philadelphia came back with two goals in the second period and added two more in the third and skated away with a 4-1 victory.
Back in New York for the sixth game, the score was 1-1 early in the third period when a wrist shot by Ron Harris beat Parent and turned out to be the game winner. It was Harris’ third goal of the playoffs after scoring only two during the regular season. Ted Irvine and Steve Vickers added insurance goals and the Blueshirts avoided elimination by a 4-1 score.
And so after six hard fought game in which each team won their respective home games, it all came down to Game 7 played in the Spectrum on Sunday afternoon May 5, 1974.
The game was scoreless when one of the most debated incidents in Rangers history took place at the 11:55 mark of the first period. With arguably six of the Rangers best players on the ice; Rod Gilbert, Jean Ratelle and Vic Hadfield up front, Brad Park and Dale Rolfe on defense and Ed Giacomin in goal, the Flyers Dave Schultz took Rolfe into the corner to the left of the Rangers net and proceeded to pummel him mercilessly, even going so far as to grab handfuls of Rolfe’s hair to hold him up. It was a planned attack with the Flyers hoping to draw one of the other Rangers into taking a “Third Man In” penalty and thereby be ejected from the game. Schultz even paused at one point to see if anyone was coming to Rolfe’s aid. But no one did. Flyer coach Freddie Shero, called it the turning point of the game and many fans and members of the media felt that the incident demoralized the Blueshirts and ridiculed them for allowing their teammate to take that kind of beating and not try to intervene.
Brad Park addressed the issue with reporters during the run up to the Rangers – Flyers 2012 Winter Classic. “Let’s get it straight once and for all,” Park said. “We did not meekly stand by; we were forced to stand by. It was Game 7, the league had brought the third-man-in rule, so someone would have gotten thrown out of the game with a game misconduct for intervening, so who did you want to want to lose; Rod Gilbert, Jean Ratelle, Vic Hadfield, or myself? I did finally decide to go, but Dale looked me in the eye and said to stay out of it. Sorry you weren’t on the ice to hear it”, Park added.
Many expected Hadfield to come to the aid of Rolfe. After all, protecting his teammates was what got him into the NHL in the first place and later earned him a spot on the Rangers top line. But as it turned out Hadfield who was already hobbled with a bad ankle was nursing a broken thumb as well.
Emile Francis: “The last game of the year, Vic gets into a fight and breaks his thumb. So now we play Montreal and we beat them out in 6 games. I had put Bruce MacGregor on the line with Ratelle and Gilbert because Vic was hurt. He played very well but he wasn’t a physical player like Hadfield. So now we play Philadelphia and it was a brutal series, because that was the type of team they were. They were like a rat pack, when they were separated they weren’t worth anything but together they played very well together. In Game Six at the Garden we kicked the shit out of them. So I put out Macgregor, Ratelle and Gilbert for the last shift of the game. And they put out their goons including Schultz, so I pulled Gilbert off and put Ron Harris on. So Schultz skates by the bench and says ‘you’re a wise guy’. I said ‘go **** yourself’’. And he didn’t do a thing.
So we practiced Friday and Saturday and we had the afternoon game in Philadelphia on Sunday. When we got to Philadelphia I sat down with Vic and told him I know exactly what’s gonna happen. They’re gonna go out there and go after somebody. I don’t know who, it could be Brad Park it could be Ratelle or Gilbert. And I asked Vic if he thought he could play. He said he could. I didn’t ask him to fight or anything, because you never had to. Well it’s an afternoon game so we’ll have a team meeting at 10 am. You think about it and see me at 9:30. Because I don’t know how you’ll feel, I don’t know how your thumb is. (Hadfield had also missed three of the previous six games with an injured ankle) You think about it and tell me Sunday morning. So I see him on Sunday morning and he says he’d like to play. Okay, you’re our Captain, you’re in the lineup.
Well the puck was dropped and shot into our right hand corner. So Park goes into the corner and Schultz goes right for Dale Rolfe in front of the net. But I just think that Vic knew his thumb wasn’t right but he wanted to play so badly, because he had been such a great player for us. But neither Rolfe or Hadfield were the same players for the rest of the game. But the key was that we lost Jerry Butler who had more guts than a slaughter house, who had taken on that whole team on Thursday night. He had three fights. He would take on anybody, anywhere. So what happened, his line went out for the next shift, Ted Irvine, Pete Stemkowski and Jerry Butler. So the puck goes towards him and he fell down and couldn’t get up! What happened was that in one of those three fights he ruptured an intestine. When we got back that night his wife rushed him to the hospital. They had to operate on him or he may have died.”
Once the dust had settled, Billy Fairbairn and Rick MacLeish swapped goals and the first period ended tied at a goal apiece.
Second period goals by Orest Kindrachuk and Gary Doenhoefer gave the Flyers a seemingly safe two goal lead. But Philadelphia didn’t sit on the lead. Instead they wore the Rangers down with relentless fore-checking and outshot the Rangers 37-19 over the first two periods. Only the spectacular netminding of Ed Giacomin kept the game from turning into a rout.
The Rangers came to life in the third period when Steve Vickers scored from the slot at the 8:49 mark. But the Flyers got the goal back 12 seconds later when Lonsberry grabbed a loose puck and fed Dornhoefer who rifled a shot over Giacomin’s shoulder and into the net.
Pete Stemkowski brought the Rangers back to within a goal when he beat Parent on a rebound at 14:34. The Blueshirts then spent the rest of the period shooting from any angle, desperately looking for the tying goal. However in the final minute while Giacomin hurried off the ice for an extra skater linesman John D’Amico called the Rangers for too many men on the ice at 19:09. The Rangers vehemently argued the call to no avail. Captain Vic Hadfield was sent to serve the penalty and it was there while sitting in the penalty box with his team frantically trying to score the tying goal, that he was caught on camera laughing. It was later explained that a fan had joked with Hadfield and that the camera had caught Hadfield at the moment he was about to hurl an insult back to the spectator. But ultimately Francis was not amused at Hadfield’s behavior and he was dealt to Pittsburgh that summer for defenseman Nick Beverly.
The Flyers won 4-3 and became the first expansion team to beat one of the Original Six in the playoffs. The two teams set a record for penalty minutes in a playoff series with 405 and Philadelphia set a single team record with 252 minutes. But one of the Rangers major problems in the series was their power play, or lack thereof. The Blueshirts only managed to score four power play goals in fifty three opportunities and failed to score in their last twenty three chances. Certainly a few more power-play goals could have turned the series around or at least make the Flyers think twice about manhandling the Blueshirts.
But overall the difference in the series was Bernie Parent who would go on to win the Conn Smythe Trophy as the MVP of the Playoffs a couple of weeks later when the Flyers beat the Bruins for the Stanley Cup.
For the Rangers it the beginning of the end, their last hurrah as a group. The next season they would be knocked out of the playoffs in the first round by the upstart Islanders and the dismantling would begin in earnest.
The Flyers would win the Stanley Cup again in 1975 and continue to be a contender through the rest of the decade.
Emile Francis: “It was a hell of a game. We lost 4-3, but a guy called a penalty on us with a minute to go in the game. It was a horse shit call. But a lot of referee’s when they went in to Philadelphia they went into the tank. It was tough to lose that way. But I knew at that point in time that it was time to start making some moves and rebuild. We were good enough for five or six years to win the Stanley Cup but we didn’t. Because you have your team and you build it up to the point that you should win and when you don’t you know you have to start over again.”