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An unlikely hero for the 1971-72 Penguins

by Mark Madden / Pittsburgh Penguins

One of the biggest goals scored in the early history of the Penguins franchise wasn't scored by a Penguin, or in a game involving the Penguins.

Ask an astute hockey fan who Gerry Meehan is, and his very respectable NHL career would be discussed: 10 seasons (1968-79), 670 games, 423 points. Meehan had a career-high 31 goals in 1972-73, a career-high 64 points in 1976-77.

Meehan was also a lawyer, and worked in Buffalo's front office from 1984-94. Meehan did stints as general manager and executive vice president.

Ask Penguins fans from the early '70s who Meehan is, and their eyes would light up.

In 1971-72, Meehan got the Penguins into the playoffs. Better yet, he did so at the expense of the Philadelphia Flyers, not yet a Penguins rival but Meehan's former team.

The date was April 2, 1972: The final day of the NHL season. The Penguins hosted St. Louis. The Flyers were at Buffalo.

The Flyers sat fourth in the West Division at 66 points, the Penguins fifth at 64. The Flyers go to the playoffs with a win or tie, or if the Penguins lost or tied. But if the Penguins won and the Flyers lost, both teams would be 26-38-14 and the Penguins make the playoffs by virtue of having scored more goals.

The Penguins made short work of the Blues - then their biggest rival - winning 6-2. The Penguins won five, tied five and lost one in their last 11 games.

Current GM Jim Rutherford played goal against St. Louis, stopping 29 of 31 shots. The Blues took an early 1-0 lead, but the Penguins tallied four straight goals to take command. Center Ron Schock scored twice. Left wing Greg Polis got his 30th goal of the season. Polis was the first Penguin to net 30.

So, the attention of Penguins fans turned to Buffalo. Some fans at the Civic Arena listened to the game on transistor radios via the Flyers' flagship, KYW-AM, a 50,000-watt signal that could easily be heard in Pittsburgh.

The Flyers led, 2-0, midway through the second period. But Gilbert Perreault and ex-Penguin Rene Robert - two-thirds of Buffalo's "French Connection" line - scored for the Sabres, and the teams were tied 2-2 as the clock wound down.

Enter Gerry Meehan.

Meehan, a left wing/center, scored 19 goals for the Sabres that season. His last would be his biggest as far as Penguins fans are concerned.

The Flyers played tight defense, trying to hold the lead. Meehan did a give-and-go through the neutral zone with Mike Byers, then released a snap shot from the top of the left circle. It didn't look like much, but it somehow got by goalie Doug Favell.

Four seconds remained. The Flyers were out of the playoffs. The Penguins were in.

Buffalo's Memorial Auditorium erupted even though the Sabres, in just their second season, finished 16-43-19 and sixth in the seven-team East Division. The Flyers agonized. Budding superstar Bobby Clarke knelt on the ice, stunned. Meehan was named the game's No. 1 star.

The Civic Arena erupted, too. Those who didn't learn what happened by listening to KYW were soon informed of the Flyers' loss over the PA. The Penguins' game against St. Louis was still going on but, with the score assuring victory, hundreds of spectators left their seats and went to the box office to buy playoff tickets.

Good thing, too. The Penguins needed every cent in those days.

The 1971-72 season marked one of just two occasions the Penguins clinched a playoff spot on the regular season's last day. The other was 2014-15, when the Penguins won 2-0 at Buffalo on April 11 to squeak into the post-season.

Mark Madden hosts a radio show 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WXDX-FM (105.9).

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