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NHL Centennial

Mel 'Sudden Death' Hill of Bruins scored three OT goals in series

Forward earned nickname against Rangers in 1939 semifinals

by Stan Fischler / Special to NHL.com

How would you like to have a nickname like "Sudden Death"?

If you happened to be John Melvin Hill from Glenboro, Manitoba, it was not a problem.

There has never been another NHL player known to have that sobriquet. It fit Hill as accurately as it did his shot.

This all stemmed from the 1938-39 NHL Semifinals between Hill's Boston Bruins and the New York Rangers, when Hill scored three overtime goals. He is the only player in NHL history to score three overtime goals in one series, and one of three players to do it in a single Stanley Cup Playoff (Maurice Richard, Montreal Canadiens, 1951; Corey Perry, Anaheim Ducks, 2017).

Prior to that, the right wing had been conspicuous by his absence from hockey headlines. During the 1937-38 season, he was promoted from Providence of the American Hockey League to the Bruins for six games.

After his call-up in Boston, during which he scored two goals, he was returned to the minors. There was, however, a Bruins boss who didn't forget him.

General manager Art Ross saw potential in Hill, and for the 1938-39 season put him on a Bruins line with Roy Conacher and Gord Pettinger. Over 46 games, he scored 20 points (10 goals, 10 assists). Not bad, but nothing to suggest that he would evolve into a playoff star.

 

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Ah, but life in hockey often takes funny turns, and in that 1939 postseason Hill suddenly emerged as a phenom.

Everything fell into place for Hill, who had been a third-stringer to that point. If one were to have scripted the Hill scenario, it would have seemed implausible.

But it happened, and here's how Hill went from obscurity to celebrity:

On March 21, 1939, the Bruins faced the Rangers, their bitter rivals, in Game 1 of the best-of-7 Semifinals at Madison Square Garden. The Rangers, like the Bruins, had become a team on the rise and loomed as a formidable foe.

The even quality of play was reflected in the 1-1 score after three periods.

Hill was hardly a standout as the game went to a third overtime. But he was playing on a line with superior forwards Bill Cowley and Conacher, either of them capable of breaking the game open.

Cowley, a center, instinctively would keep his eyes out for Conacher as the likely recipient of his passes. Conacher was a sharpshooter extraordinaire and worked well with Cowley.

Logic dictated that Cowley would skim his passes to Conacher, so Hill might have been overlooked by the Rangers. This thought also entered the mind of Ross, also the Bruins coach, who finally passed the suggestion on to Cowley. Sure enough, late in the third overtime, Cowley entered the Rangers zone, carefully handling the puck.

Meanwhile, Hill found an unguarded piece of ice near the goal crease. Cowley drifted in and crisply fed Hill, whose shot eluded goalie Dave Kerr at 19:25, giving Boston a 2-1 victory.

Hill was a hero, to be sure, in Boston, but the best was yet to come -- at Boston Garden, where Game 2 was also tied, 2-2, after three periods. The end to overtime came quickly this time, courtesy of Hill and Cowley.

Cowley again orchestrated the play -- a drop pass inside the New York zone -- and Hill scored the winner on a 40-foot shot past Rangers goalie Bert Gardiner, who started in place of the injured Kerr, at 8:24.

If Hill wasn't the toast of Boston by this time, it was only because defenseman Eddie Shore, goaltender Frank Brimsek and forward Milt Schmidt were also on the roster. They helped the Bruins to a 4-1 win in Game 3, setting the stage for a series sweep.

Whether it was simply overconfidence or the Rangers' refusal to go quietly, the Bruins would not easily finish the series. New York valiantly rallied, winning the next three and forcing Game 7.

The date was April 2, 1939, and to no one's surprise, Boston Garden bulged for the climactic encounter. To this point in NHL history, no team had won the first three games of a series and lost the next four. Yet that was the fate that the Bruins faced if they couldn't eliminate the Rangers in yet another overtime game, the fourth of the series.

 

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Fans awaited the start of the third overtime, wondering if there would be a hero among the home skaters.

The reliable Schmidt, perhaps. Or Conacher, the sharpshooter, or maybe even the indomitable Shore. Or could anyone imagine Hill rescuing the Bruins yet again?

Seven-plus minutes into the third overtime, no result was in sight. Then Shore started a Boston counterthrust. He skimmed the puck to Conacher, who fired a heavy shot at Gardiner.

Gardiner was forced to extend himself but made the save and kept play alive by tossing the puck deeper into the Rangers' zone. He assumed that a teammate would recover it and move it into the Bruins' end.

This time, however, the Rangers defensemen were slow and outhustled by Cowley, who snared the puck behind the net. Hill knew what he had to do -- and he did it.

Camped out at his favorite spot, in front of the Rangers crease, Hill did not have to wait long for the puck to come to him, and before Gardiner could properly react, Hill scored the biggest goal of his young hockey life.

When the red light flashed at 8:00, not only had Boston won the series, but Hill had earned a nickname forever.

Hill then had four points (two goals, two assists) against the Toronto Maple Leafs in the Stanley Cup Final, won by Boston in five games, but his career never was the same. He didn't meet the expectations of Boston fans, and management, for that matter, and was traded to the Brooklyn Americans for the 1941-42 season. He then played four seasons with the Maple Leafs (1942-46) and was a key member of the 1944-45 Stanley Cup winners, scoring five points (two goals, three assists) in 13 playoff games.

After his stint in Toronto, he played six seasons in the minor leagues to end his career. Hill retired in 1952 but will always be remembered for his clutch goals in 1939, the reason he's the only NHL player nicknamed Sudden Death.

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