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NHL history chock full of unusual occurrences

Unexpected wins by Islanders, Capitals among Fischler's most memorable hockey happenings

by Stan Fischler / Special to NHL.com

Legendary hockey reporter and analyst Stan Fischler writes a weekly scrapbook for NHL.com. Fischler, known as "The Hockey Maven," shares his knowledge, humor and insight with readers each Wednesday.

Today he takes a look at three of the more unusual occurrences during his long career covering the NHL.

 

Islanders shock 'Big Bad Bruins'

Every NHL coach worth his clipboard preaches that his team has to play 60 minutes of solid hockey to win. That applies even when his team looks like it can't lose, as the Boston Bruins learned on the night of Jan. 18, 1973.

The defending Stanley Cup champion Bruins couldn't help but arrive at Boston Garden that night thinking their game against the New York Islanders would offer the chance to pad their offensive numbers on the way to an easy victory. Not only were the first-year Islanders on the way to the worst season in NHL history, they came to Boston having lost 12 consecutive games. The Bruins had won all four games against the NHL newcomers, outscoring them 28-9.

The Islanders had few NHL-caliber players. But one of them was captain Ed Westfall, a forward who had spent his entire career with the Bruins before being selected by the Islanders in the 1972 NHL Expansion Draft. A few weeks before the draft, Westfall had been among the Bruins celebrating at Madison Square Garden when Boston won the Stanley Cup by defeating the New York Rangers 3-0 in Game 6 of the Final.

As usual, Westfall received a warm ovation from the Boston Garden faithful when he took the ice. But those cheers soon turned to silence when the Islanders took a quick lead; Don Blackburn, a forward who had made his NHL debut with the Bruins a decade earlier, scored at 2:16 to put New York ahead 1-0.

Then it started raining goals; New York scored four times in a span of 7:10 to take a 5-0 lead less than 18 minutes into the game, stunning the crowd.

"All of a sudden we caught them flat‐footed. We got one, two, three goals and we just kept on going," Islanders coach Phil Goyette said. "We charged at them from the start."

Boston's Johnny Bucyk scored late in the period to make it 5-1, but Westfall beat former teammate Eddie Johnston 1:31 into the second period for a 6-1 lead.

"They must have had a big party the night before," Islanders center Lorne Henning remembered years later. "I know they weren't really fired up to play us."

The Bruins finally got over their shock and started filling the net, getting within 7-6 and 8-7 in the third period.

"Our team wasn't used to success," Westfall said.

But each time it looked like Boston would catch and pass the Islanders, goalie Billy Smith stepped up -- at one point stopping a shot from the slot by Wayne Cashman with his face. Rookie Billy Harris scored an insurance goal with 2:36 left, and when the final horn went off, the Islanders had ended their 12-game losing streak with an improbable 9-7 victory.

"It was like winning the Stanley Cup," defenseman Gerry Hart said years later.

The result was so unbelievable that TV and radio announcers around the NHL laughed when they saw the score on the wires, certain that it had to be a typo. It wasn't. Instead, it was New York's fifth win in 46 games and its only one that season against an Original Six team. More than 45 years later, it still ranks among the most unlikely regular-season victories in NHL history.

 

Once a defenseman, always a defenseman

Ivan Johnson, better known to NHL fans as "Ching," was a Hall of Fame defenseman who helped the New York Rangers win the Stanley Cup in 1928 and 1933. He made life miserable for opposing forwards as one of the NHL's most feared body checkers while spending his entire career in New York, playing 11 seasons with the Rangers and one with the New York Americans before retiring after the 1937-38 season.

But Johnson couldn't completely leave the game, so he eventually became a linesman in the Eastern Amateur Hockey League, based in Washington. However, there was a problem: Johnson never forgot that he had been an NHL defenseman.

Johnson's instincts got the better of him during a 1944 game between the New York Rovers and Washington Lions at Uline Arena in Washington. The bizarre episode unfolded when a Washington player raced in on what he thought was a clean breakaway. At that precise moment, Johnson forgot he was a linesman; instead, his instincts as an NHL defenseman took over.

Here's how one witness described it:

"Johnson suddenly forgot himself. For a split second he wasn't an official anymore; he was a Rangers defenseman all over again -- and his goal was in danger. Ching cut over in front of the fast-skating Lions forward and laid him low with a body check that was as hard as any you'll ever see."

A reporter who witnessed the scene put it this way: "The check was so hard that it felt like it made the Lincoln Memorial shake and quiver on its granite foundation!"

When Johnson was asked about his case of mistaken identity, his answer was simple. "I just can't explain it," he said. "Here was that guy racing for the goal and I just had to stop him. Why? Instinct, I guess.

"The old habit was too deep within me, and for a second, I clean forgot where I was and what I was doing."

 

Capitals enjoyed 'Cup' celebration

The expansion Washington Capitals of 1974-75 rank among the worst teams in NHL history. That's not surprising, considering that they were made up largely of rookies and players who'd been discarded by other teams.

But near the end of that dubious season, those Capitals got a chance to think about what it was like to drink champagne from the Stanley Cup.

Playing against the California Golden Seals at the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum Arena, the Capitals celebrated a landmark victory.

After going 0-37 in their first 37 games away from Capital Centre, the Capitals won on the road for the first time on March 28, 1975, by defeating the Golden Seals 5-3 (the victory also ended their NHL-record 17-game losing streak). The Capitals were so elated that they devised their own kind of celebration. Washington Post reporter Russ White observed from Oakland that the Capitals "substituted a wastepaper basket for the Stanley Cup to celebrate their victory."

A highlight of the substitute Stanley Cup party was the sight of general manager-coach Milt Schmidt guzzling beer from the basket as if it was champagne from the real Cup. While their boss drank, the players shouted the most ironic cheer imaginable: "Break up the Caps!"

It was the only win in 40 road games that season for the Capitals, who still hold the NHL modern-era record for fewest points in a season (21) after going 8-67 with five ties.

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