After spending much of the 1969-70 season in first place, a late slump triggered by All-Star defenseman Brad Park's broken ankle had left them entering the game on the verge of missing the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time since 1966.
The Rangers skated onto the ice knowing they not only needed to defeat the Red Wings, who had clinched a playoff berth by defeating them 6-2 the night before in Detroit, but they had to run up the score -- and then hope. New York entered the final day of the season trailing the Montreal Canadiens in the race for fourth place and the final playoff spot in the East Division not only by two points but also by five goals scored. Under NHL rules at the time, this was the first tiebreaker for teams that finished with the same record, as the Rangers and Canadiens would be if New York won and Montreal lost that night. A low-scoring victory was no better than a loss, and the Rangers hadn't scored as many as five goals in a game in more than six weeks.
"We were two points behind Montreal, so we would have to win the game and score at least five goals to tie them, and then they would have to lose," Park said. "We knew that before the game, the whole scenario. It was a longshot."
About 800 miles away, the Canadiens were relaxing before their game against the Chicago Black Hawks that night. Chicago had won 4-1 at the Montreal Forum the night before, costing the two-time defending Stanley Cup champions a chance to clinch a playoff berth. But with a two-point lead and a five-goal advantage, their odds of returning to the playoffs for a chance to win a third consecutive championship still looked pretty good.
Ten hours and two stunning outcomes later, the Canadiens were former champions and the Rangers proved the wisdom of a one-liner by their coach-general manager Emile Francis, who had quipped before the gloomy flight back from Detroit that "this game is slippery. It's played on ice."
The Garden was usually packed for Rangers games, especially against an Original Six team like the Red Wings. But there were huge pockets of empty seats when the puck dropped shortly after 2 p.m.
"We had lost to Detroit the night before," Park said, "and we had to win and score at least five goals to tie Montreal. They didn't need the game to get in the playoffs and we did. When we went out onto the ice at the Garden, there were about 7,000 or 8,000 people in the building. I think it was a Game of the Week, so it was televised locally."
The fact that Park was playing at all was an accomplishment. The Rangers were in first place when he broke his ankle during a game at Detroit on Feb. 19; they went 3-10 with three ties until he returned March 28, a 1-1 tie with the Canadiens in Montreal. The Rangers followed with wins against the Canadiens and Toronto Maple Leafs, giving themselves a chance to make the playoffs entering the final weekend of the season.
"I broke my ankle and made it back maybe a week or 10 days before [the end of the season]," Park said. "I wasn't as mobile as I wanted to be because I had a brace inside my skate. I wasn't in midseason form or anything like that, but I was back in the lineup and I was pretty happy about that."
The fans who were there for the opening face-off saw the Rangers come out like a house on fire.
After nearly scoring on the first shift, New York went ahead 36 seconds into the game on a goal by Rod Gilbert, pumping some life into the fans who had bothered to show up.
It had been a tough season for Gilbert, who entered the game with 14 goals after scoring 28, 29 and 28 in the previous three seasons, and the fans who were there let him know it.
"That was an emotional game for me," he said. "I was always one of the fans' favorites, I tried hard all the time, and that year was the same. But for some reason, I didn't produce, compared to the years before. I had a poor season for some reason. I had some injuries, but that's no excuse. The fans were down on me because we were in the position of not making the playoffs, basically because I didn't produce the way I had in the past."
Not even getting the Rangers off to a fast start made Gilbert any more popular at that moment with the Garden faithful.
"I scored the first goal," he said, "and to my great surprise they booed me. They booed my name. It was the first time that had ever happened to me in my career in New York. Wow."
The fans may not have been happy with Gilbert, but Francis said his goal made a big difference.
"I had a game plan. I really did," he said. "I was going to keep changing lines and keep the shifts down to 30-45 seconds each. Gilbert's goal ignited us. It came so quickly that even the guys who thought that maybe we couldn't do it were now thinking, 'Maybe we can.' I could almost feel it on the bench."
Red Wings defenseman Gary Bergman tied the game at 3:08, but the Rangers kept coming. Jack Egers, a rookie forward who had been called up a few days earlier because of his booming shot, put the Rangers ahead to stay with a power-play goal at 8:25. Dave Balon scored at 12:31, Egers got his second of the game at 17:48 and New York led 4-1 after one period.
"It was incredible," Francis said. "We hadn't gotten three goals in a period in almost two months. The goals by Egers were very important. They kept the momentum and the feeling going. That was probably the best game Egers ever played in his career."
For the first 75 games of the season, the Rangers had been a tight, defense-first team. But with the season on the line, Francis changed his strategy.
"I told the guys right from the start, 'Let's run 'em off the ice,'" he said. "And run 'em off the ice is what we did."
The 15-minute intermission didn't cool down the Rangers, but it did trigger something else.
"We scored four goals in the first period; we came out for the start of the second period, and there are something like 12,000 people in the building now," Park said.
For the second time in as many periods, Gilbert got his team off to a quick start. This time, he needed 20 seconds to beat Roger Crozier, making the score 5-1 and giving the Rangers at least the possibility of jumping over the Canadiens.
The reaction by the Garden crowd to his second goal was a lot different than it was to the first.
"I scored the fifth goal, which gave us a chance [to tie the Canadiens]," Gilbert said. "So they announce my name -- 'Goal scored by Rod Gilbert' -- and I got a standing ovation. How fickle can you be? They boo me when I score the first goal and they're cheering me when I scored the fifth one. It was wonderful. I didn't expect that.
"And then we kept going."
Detroit's Frank Mahovlich cut the lead to 5-2 at 4:21, but two goals by Ron Stewart bumped the lead to 7-2. A late goal by Pete Stemkowski of the Red Wings made it 7-3 after two periods, and the Rangers skated off the ice to raucous cheers.
By now, word that there was something special going on at the Garden had gotten around. Although the game was televised locally, a lot of fans who had opted to skip the game postponed dinner and headed to the Garden.
"We scored three more goals in the second, so we came out for the third period and the building was full," Park said. "We were up 7-3 going into the third period, which meant we had our five goals and a couple more, but we knew we needed more. The building was full, and that gave us even more get up and go."
The Rangers outshot the Red Wings 39-15 through two periods, but they knew they couldn't let up. Balon, New York's top goal-scorer, kept the momentum going when he scored at 1:21 of the third period, then completed a hat trick at 9:48 with his 33rd goal of the season.
But a 9-3 lead wasn't enough for Francis. With the Rangers firing at will against Crozier, he pulled his own goalie, Ed Giacomin, in favor of an extra attacker with less than four minutes remaining. Pulling the goalie for a sixth skater in the final minute to try to tie the game was nothing out of the ordinary but doing it to build on a six-goal lead was something no one had ever seen.
"I decided to pull the goalie and I told Ed in the intermission he was coming out," Francis remembered years later. "He understood and the players all understood. We had the game well in hand. So they scored a couple of goals, but we threw all caution to the wind."
Detroit's Gordie Howe and Nick Libett scored into the empty net in the final minutes, but the game ended 9-5. The Rangers had pelted Crozier with 65 shots, a team single-game record that still stands. More important, they were now even in points with the Canadiens and had outscored them by four goals. That meant Montreal needed a win, a tie or to score at least five goals against Chicago to pass the Rangers. If the teams ended with the same number of goals scored, the Rangers would advance because they had allowed 189 goals in 76 games, two fewer than the Canadiens had surrendered in 75.
Francis said the Rangers had another ally -- CBS, which showed the game nationally, including in Chicago, where the Canadiens got an eyeful.
"The fact that the game was on national television was a huge help to us," he said. "The Canadiens were in Chicago and no doubt watched what we did in the afternoon. That put pressure on them, no doubt about it."
Compounding the pressure for Montreal was that the Black Hawks, unlike the Red Wings, had something to play for. A victory would give Chicago its second first-place finish since entering the NHL in 1926. The Blackhawks needed two points to tie the Boston Bruins with 99; but their 45 wins would be five more than the Bruins and assure them of first place in the East.
"We ended up getting nine goals, and then it was a case of wait-and-see," Park said. "We knew Montreal was going into Chicago, and Chicago was in a battle with the Bruins for first overall. It meant a lot to Chicago. At that time the Big, Bad Bruins had come along, and they wanted home-ice advantage."
Gilbert said the Rangers were fortunate that the game against Montreal meant so much to Chicago.
"We knew we had to score a lot of goals, because the Canadiens only had to score five and they would be in," he said. "But we knew it would be pretty hard to do. They were playing on the road and they were playing a team that was playing for something. Chicago was battling with Boston for first place, to get the home-ice advantage."
A couple of enterprising New York fans reportedly hopped a plane, flew to Chicago and managed to get tickets for the game at Chicago Stadium. With no telecast of the game available in the pre-cable TV days, Rangers fans found themselves twisting and turning their radio dials.
While Francis returned to his home on Long Island and went out for a long walk (he and many of the Rangers lived in the town of Long Beach, where their practice rink was located), the Rangers reassembled on the East Side of Manhattan where in the pre-Internet age, Park found his own way to find out what was happening in Chicago.
"I ended up at a bar on First Avenue called Mr. Laffs, and someone called their mother in Chicago and got her on the phone," he said. "She put the radio on, and I was sitting in the back by the bathrooms where the phone was, listening to the third period -- I didn't listen to the whole game, but I listened to the third period, yelling out the scores. Chicago was up like 3-1 and then 4-2, and Montreal pulled their goalie - then it was 5-2, 6-2, and they're trying to generate at least five goals.
"They know that if they can't win, they have to get at least five goals, so they were pulling their goalie. But it didn't happen."
When the final horn went off in Chicago, the Black Hawks owned first place after hitting the empty net five times in a 10-2 victory. More astonishingly, the Rangers snuck into fourth place. New York and Montreal each finished 38-22 with 16 ties, but the Rangers had scored 246 goals to 244 for Montreal, and under the tiebreaking system used at the time, they earned the final playoff berth in the East.
It was a memorable night for Park in more ways than one.
"I was only in my second year, and my salary was $11,000," he said. "When we got into the playoffs, I bought a round for the bar -- most expensive round I ever had. But you can bet that I enjoyed it."
To Gilbert, a Montreal native, the fact that the Rangers had made the playoffs at the expense of the Canadiens made it a little bit more special.
"It was quite a celebration," he said. "A memorable, memorable game because I'm from Montreal, and to knock those [guys] out -- it had been 20-25 years since they'd missed the playoffs.
"We weren't particularly fond of the Canadiens. We never won too many games against them, so we said, 'Maybe this is the time we put them out of their misery. And Chicago did. It was amazing -- that feeling that Montreal didn't make it."
The outcome was equally stunning to the Canadiens, who suddenly found themselves as dethroned champions without a chance to win their third straight championship. Instead, they were heading home after missing the playoffs for the first time since 1947-48 (they didn't miss again until 1994-95).
"It's like a bad dream," center Henri Richard said, according to the Montreal Gazette.
Forward Claude Provost said his team's failure to win any of its four games (two against the Rangers, two against Chicago) in the late stages of the season doomed the Canadiens.
"When we picked up only one point on the final two weekends of the season against teams we had to beat, we hardly deserved to be in the playoffs," said Provost, who like many of his teammates had never missed the NHL postseason. "But it's still hard to figure why."
Though many of Richard's teammates felt the Red Wings hadn't given their best on Sunday after clinching a playoff berth the night before, coach Claude Ruel disagreed.
"We can't blame Detroit for our problems," Ruel said, according to the Gazette. "We have no one to blame but ourselves."
While the Canadiens headed into the offseason, the reprieved Rangers headed for Boston -- under the playoff format used at the time, the second-place Bruins and fourth-place Rangers met in the Stanley Cup Quarterfinals, with Boston winning a hard-fought six-game series on the way to its first championship since 1941.
"Except for the first two games, we were fine," Francis said. "But Bobby Orr was Bobby Orr, and he just took over."
The most prophetic of the Canadiens was forward Yvan Cournoyer, who noted that, "I guess we learned something this year." Whatever the lesson was, he and his teammates learned it well. The Canadiens won the Stanley Cup in 1971, the first of six championships in a nine-season span.
Top photo courtesy of New York Post/Getty Images, others Hockey Hall of Fame