The New York Rangers trudged home for the season finale against the Detroit Red Wings looking at one of the biggest collapses in NHL history. Five weeks earlier, they had been in first place in the tight Eastern Conference race, only to fall apart after star defenseman Brad Park went down with a broken ankle in Detroit on Feb. 28. Park made it back into the lineup in only four weeks and helped the Rangers to a pair of wins, but after a disheartening 6-2 loss at Detroit on April 4, they appeared all but dead.
The only thing keeping the Rangers alive was the Montreal Canadiens' inability to close them out. The two-time defending Stanley Cup champs had a chance to clinch the fourth and final playoff berth in the East on Saturday. But while the Rangers were losing in Detroit (allowing the Wings to clinch a playoff spot in the process), the Canadiens lost to Chicago at the Forum, keeping them only two points ahead of New York.
Still, the Rangers knew when they took the ice at Madison Square Garden for their nationally televised game on Easter Sunday afternoon that not only would they have to beat the Wings, they would have to score a lot of goals in the process. A Rangers win and a Montreal loss would leave the teams with the exact same win-loss record, but the Canadiens entered the final day of the season with five more goals scored than the Rangers, which, under the rules in effect at the time, would have given them the playoff berth.
Rangers GM-coach Emile Francis tried to rally his troops after the loss in Detroit and keep their spirits up for the return match.
"It was incredible. I mean, we hadn't gotten three goals in a period in almost two months!" -- Emile Francis
The teams got into New York early on the morning of April 5 -- less than 12 hours before the scheduled 2 p.m. start. Morning came faster than usual, and it started out like it was going to be a day where nothing went right. There was a power failure in the coffee shop at the Rangers' hotel near Madison Square Garden, and breakfast was not available. Some players went elsewhere; others just skipped breakfast.
With the game on local TV, a lot of Rangers fans stayed home. They missed one of the great performances in the team's 80-plus-year history.
"I had a game plan, I really did," Francis recalled decades later. "I was going to keep changing lines and keep the shifts down to 30 seconds each, 45 seconds tops. It was the only way."
If the Garden fans were skeptical that the Rangers could somehow make the playoffs, the players weren't. Walt Tkaczuk nearly scored on the first shift of the game, and Rod Gilbert did score on the second.
Rookie forward Jack Egers, who had become a fan favorite because of his booming shot, connected at 8:25, and Dave Balon scored beat a beleaguered Roger Crozier at 12:21.
"It was incredible," Francis remembered of the onslaught. "I mean, we hadn't gotten three goals in a period in almost two months!"
Egers scored again before the end of the period, making it 4-1 and giving Rangers fans some hope.
"Of course, it was possible," Francis said. "I knew it, and it was my job to make sure the players knew it, too."
He must have gotten the message across.
The onslaught continued when Gilbert scored 20 seconds into the second period. Ron Stewart kept the fans in a frenzy with two more goals, giving the Rangers a 7-2 lead after two periods. By the time the third period began, the seats that were empty at the start of the game were filled with brand-new believers.
"There were maybe 7,500 people in the stands at the start of the game," Park remembered. "At the end of the first period we were leading 4-1 and we came out for the start of the second period and there were something like 12,000 people there. I think we were leading 7-2 after the second period, and we came out for the start of the third period and the place was full."
The Rangers had fired 39 shots at Crozier after two periods, and the best was yet to come. Balon scored twice in the first 9:48 of the third period to give the Rangers nine goals, meaning Montreal either would have to get a point or score at least five goals to make the playoffs (the Rangers had allowed fewer goals and would win the next tiebreaker if the teams had the same number of goals scored). Francis was so desperate for more offense that he pulled goaltender Ed Giacomin four times in the final minutes, surrendering a pair of empty-net goals amid the Rangers' barrage. New York wound up firing 26 shots in the third period and 65 for the game -- a team record that still stands.
The stunning 9-5 victory sent Rangers fans to their radios, trying to pick up the broadcast of the Canadiens-Blackhawks game from Chicago Stadium (remember, these were the pre-Internet, pre-Center Ice days, when fans who wanted to find out-of-town games had to hope for a clear radio signal). One pair of enterprising fans even took a plane to Chicago and managed to get tickets.
Luckily for the Rangers, the game meant a lot to the Hawks, who needed a victory to finish first. The game was close for a while, but after the Hawks took a two-goal lead, the desperate Canadiens tried the same pull-the-goalie tactic Francis had used. Instead, the Hawks filled the empty net, sending the Chicago Stadium faithful into an uproar and turning a competitive game into a 10-2 rout that sent the Rangers into the playoffs.
It was a night like the NHL never had seen -- and one Park had fond memories of decades later. "I was at Mr. Laffs (a popular New York pub at the time)," he said, "and when I heard that the Blackhawks had won, I was so excited that I wound up buying a round at the bar. It was the most expensive round I ever bought."