North of the 400

North of Toronto, South of a championship

NHL Lockout Classics, Part One: The best series-deciding game nobody remembers

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The last time there was a lockout, the CBC aired movies on Saturday night and TSN aired a bunch of basketball. This was before TSN2’s launch and before ESPN’s 30 for 30 series gave them a bunch of worthwhile hour-long programs to fill the day. There wasn’t a lot they could have used that drew ratings: they also aired a lot of poker and re-broadcasted stuff from the 70s and 80s. While it was cool seeing old stuff (and I ended up taping a bunch of stuff, some of which helped me out in tape-trading circles), I can’t imagine most people were really into them. Especially with a slate of games everyone already knows about, anyway:

A selection of games TSN rebroadcasted during the 2004-05 NHL Lockout:

  • 1978 Stanley Cup Quarterfinals, Toronto v. New York Islanders, Game Seven
  • 1990 Smythe Division Semifinals, Edmonton v. Winnipeg, Game Four
  • 1987 Rendez-Vous Series, NHL All-Stars vs Soviet National Team, Game One
  • 1985 Adams Final, Montreal v. Quebec, Game Seven
  • March 24, 1994, Vancouver @ Los Angeles, Wayne Gretzky scores goal 802
  • 1993 Campbell Conference Final, Los Angeles v. Toronto: Game Seven
  • December 31, 1975, Red Army @ Montreal
  • 1979 Conference Final: Boston v. Montreal, Game Seven
  • 1979 Stanley Cup Semifinal, Montreal v. Toronto, Game Four

Look at those: literally every hockey fan has seen Guy Lafleur score against Boston in 79, knows Gretzky scored more goals than anyone else and couldn’t care less about Toronto gagging like dogs at home against the Kings in 1993. And since the Jets returned to Winnipeg, the novelty of a Jets game has gone out the window.

I do not have an extensive tape library, but I know my vintage NHL broadcasts. I’m probably in a pretty good spot to recommend a few things TSN could air that aren’t especially familiar to most fans. And since TSN isn’t going to air much basketball, and one can only watch the 30 for 30 about the Baltimore Colts marching band so many times, I’m game to recommend some stuff I’d like to watch again. I’ll write up one game every week or so, offering links to it on YouTube whenever possible. Today, it’s a win-or-go-home game between the Pittsburgh Penguins and St. Louis Blues from the 1981 playoffs.

1981 Quarterfinals (St. Louis v. Pittsburgh): Game 5

Neither of these teams were especially great in the early 80s, but 1981 was a very good year for the Blues: 45 wins, 107 points and they finished with the second-best record in the NHL (just behind the Islanders, arguably at the peak of their powers, too). Part of that was a young and promising team, with five players scoring more than 30 goals, all of them under 25. A 24-year old Bernie Federko led the team in points with 104 (and 31 goals) while Wayne Babych scored 54 goals, sixth-highest in the league. A larger part of that success was a really bad division: Winnipeg won just nine games that season and no other team in the Smythe finished above .500. The Blues got to beat up on some lousy teams and they did it often, playing of those teams four times.

Meanwhile, Pittsburgh was a few years away from drafting Mario Lemieux and hardly a good team, finishing with just 30 wins. Aside from Rick Kehoe’s 55 goals, they weren’t much on scoring, with Paul Gardiner’s 34 goals second on the team. And in net, Greg Millen wasn’t a standout goalie: 258 goals allowed, a 4.16 GAA, and a record of 25-27-10. But they had a few things going for them: a young Randy Carlyle on the blueline, 24 and just coming into his own (he’d win the Norris at this season’s end); a line of Peter Lee, Greg Malone and Rod Schutt that combined for 76 goals; Kehoe emerging as a scoring threat.

Back in 1981, the NHL seeded the entire league for the playoffs. This meant that St. Louis, the second best team in the league, got to the play the 15th-ranked team in the league: Pittsburgh. On paper, it wasn’t much of a match: the Blues finished with a SRS of 0.85 and had scored their opponents 352 to 281. Pittsburgh had been outscored in the regular season and finished with a SRS of -0.51. But there were a few wrinkles: the Penguins played in a tough conference, going up against teams like Montreal (45 wins, 103 points), Los Angeles (43 wins, 99 points) and Buffalo (39 wins, 99 points) often. And they played St. Louis tough in the regular season, splitting a four-game series.

The series opened in St. Louis, ending in a 4-2 win for the Blues. Game two went to Pittsburgh, 6-4. When the series moved to Pittsburgh, the teams split them again: St. Louis won 5-4 in game three, Pittsburgh 6-3 in game four. So the series moved back to St. Louis’ Checkerdome for the decisive game five, played on April 14, a Tuesday.

Game five starts out chippy: only a few minutes in, Brian Sutter and Carlyle (both team captains!) start throwing punches. More penalties follow and on a powerplay, the Penguins score first, when Gardner deflects a shot through Mike Liut’s legs. It’s the first goal of the playoffs for Gardner. This was the high-water mark of his career: he’s never finish with as many points, although the next year he’d score more goals. But in 1982, Gardner was on the receiving end of a sucker-punch from Winnipeg’s Jimmy Mann. He somehow played in 70 games that year, but that was about it for him: he’d play 30 more games over the next three seasons and that was it.

Watching this game is an interesting look at the NHL right before the 80s style everyone remembers started: the games fast, but not played at the same flow the Oilers would later use. It’s a little more chippy, with a lot of grabbing and shoving into the boards. In net,  Liut is still using one of those old solid masks people used to wear in the 70s, a thing that doesn’t seem like it’d offer much relief if hit with a solid shot.

In the other end, Millen plays in a style completely foreign to today’s game: he flops around, like he’s trying to smother the puck with his body, and flails his arms around. When he stands, he keeps both legs together in a straight line and is hunched over. And during breaks, he bounces around to the music (indeed, the color guy says Millen had to choose between being a drummer and a pro goalie). For Millen, 1981 was a breakout year: he led the NHL with 27 losses, but won 25, fourth-best in the NHL, for a team with scoring issues. Hockey-Reference credits him with 8.3 goalie point shares that season; granted, that’s a rough number for an era where shots and ice time weren’t recorded, but it’s a nice estimate of his worth to that team.

But after backstopping the Pens to the playoffs, he went to Hartford as a free agent. He’d spend three and a half seasons there, finishing with a bunch of losses (he’d lead the league in losses again in 1982-83 and 1984-85) and was traded to St. Louis in Feburary for: Mike Liut! There, he’d split time with Rick Wamsley, but put up a series of decent  years, averaging about a 3.50 GAA and a .880-something Save Percentage. He was traded twice in the 1989-90 season and twice more in 1991 and retired after that season. Today, we all know and love him as the colour guy on Leaf broadcasts and usually try to forget when he does Canadiens games for the CBC.

As the first period ends, it’s 1-0 Pittsburgh, as you can see on the screencap. But the thing standing out the most for me is the network broadcasting the game: USA Network. Back in the early 80s, USA was still an independent network and they broadcasted a better selection of sports than ESPN. They were the network who carried the Band on the Field game, early rounds of The Masters and the US Open, a bunch of NBA action (my collection includes a double-overtime Boston/Washington game from the early 80s) and some NHL stuff, too. And, because this is an American hockey broadcast from 1981, Jiggs has to remind the viewers at home, “The Penguins are wearing the dark uniforms.”

The Penguins all but open the second period on a powerplay (the penalty comes right after the opening faceoff), but the Blues kill it. It’s not furious action, but both teams are playing end-to-end hockey. As it reaches the halfway mark, it’s still 1-0, although both sides have gotten chances: Federko makes a nice move to get through the defence and gets a nice shot at Millen but Tony Currie whiffs on the rebound and an open net.

In some ways, the differences in broadcasting in this game and more recent ones aren’t especially different. There’s only really one way to shoot a hockey game and that’s with a camera at mid-ice, following the action lengthwise along the ice. The changes are more or less minor: there’s no scorebug and the commentating is a little more hesitant. The graphics are crazy primitive, with no clock on screen at all. And here, late in the second period, it switches to black and white for reasons not explained by either Jiggs or NHL Network.

But the section’s here because it’s where the Blues score their first goal: Federko takes it in with Currie on a two-on-one, Moving in on Millen’s right, he fakes a shot (and Millen bites, flopping to the ice like he’s been shot), wheels around the net and dumps it in front, where it bounces off a bunch of people and Sutter gets credit for the goal. The crowd in the Checkerdome goes apeshit. The Blues keep pressing, but when Gregg Sheppard beats out a Blues player for the puck on a dump, the Penguins get a chance at Liut. He passes to Mark Johnson, alone in front of Liut, who takes a shot, blocked by Liut. Johnson passes the rebound to George Ferguson, who’s basically alone in front of an open net and it’s 2-1 Pittsburgh.

In 1981, Ferguson scored 25 goals, a career high. He was 28, coming off of two consecutive 20-goal seasons, and was starting to put things together: prior to coming to Pittsburgh, he’d played for the Leafs (he was part of the Carlyle trade) where he’d never much established himself on a pretty good team. He wasn’t exactly a bust for the Leafs, but he was taken 11th overall in 1972, ahead of Bob Nystrom, Peter McNab and Al MacAdam. If he’s remembered much at all, it’s for his time in Pittsburgh: four straight seasons with 20+ goals and an overtime goal in 1979 in a series-deciding game against Buffalo.

With about four minutes left in the second, the Blues go on the powerplay again. Almost immediately the Sutter-Currie-Federko combo strikes: after a flurry of shots on net, Currie takes the puck behind the net, fakes a move and throws it in front to Sutter who puts it the corner, over Millen’s stick side. Game’s two-all. And Federko and Sutter stay out for another shift: this is before shifts were 30 seconds long, I suppose. After 40 minutes, it’s tied at two.

As the third gets started, Jiggs announces a final from Philadelphia: the Flyers have beat Quebec and are moving on to the second round. As per the Byzantine playoff structure of the time, the Flyers were either going to play the New York Rangers or the Calgary Flames, depending on who won the Blues/Pens game. Remember  the league seeded every playoff team back in these days, so because the Penguins were 15th, on wining they would have played the second-highest seeded team still in the playoffs, the Buffalo Sabres (fifth) and the Flyers would have played the Rangers. If the Blues won, they’d play the Rangers and the Flyers would play Calgary. This nightmare of a system, which resulted in teams travelling across the country (“A lot of teams have travel plans tied up in this game,” says Jiggs), was eliminated the next year when the NHL brought in a divisional system.

The Blues score again in the third, on a long shot from Rick Lapointe. It’s 3-2, the first time all night the Blues have led the game, and the crowd at the Checkerdome erupts. That was the actual name of the arena at the time: The Checkerdome. It came from Ralston-Purina, the dog food company with ties to a cult leader, whose logo was a checkerboard. They only owned the Blues for a few years and dumped it on to the NHL in 1983, at which time the arena reverted back to The St. Louis Arena. Now, in the age of naming rights, we’d still be calling it the Checkerdome. Later, the Penguins tie it up – my DVD copy skips this goal – and send the game to overtime, tied at three.

Both goalies amp it up in overtime: Liut makes a stellar glove save about seven minutes into OT, then Millen makes a key stop when Babych ends up with the puck at the top of the crease. The pace picks up considerably – Eurizone says “I don’t want to say anything, I just want to watch the game! It’s been incredible!” – as play goes from end to end. In one stretch, Peter Lee takes it down into St. Louis’ end, skates past Bryan Maxwell and tries to deke Liut, but misses the net. In another, Millen falls to his side and blocks several shots by Sutter, who’s standing alone right in front of his net. It’s not gorgeous hockey, but it’s exciting.

Both Liut and Millen are playing out of their minds, albiet with completely different styles of goaltending. At one end, Millen is proactive, skating way out of the net and breaking up play. At the other, Liut is taking the shots as they come from Pittsburgh: later in OT he makes a stop on a Mark Johnson breakaway, then another when Johnson throws the rebound across the ice to Gardner. Late in OT he reaches behind himself, grabbing a puck right at the goal line and keeping St. Louis’ season alive. After a few more chances, most of them for the Penguins, the game goes to a second overtime.

There’s more wild action in the second OT, including a scramble in front of St. Louis’ net where Rick Kehoe and Jim Hamilton somehow miss a bouncing puck in front of an open net. “He’s had the tougher saves in this overtime,” adds Eurizone. Soon Currie and Federko have a two-on-one, but hit the post. During a break in play, Jiggs notes there’s been a total of 102 shots in this game. Seconds later, on shot 103, it ends.

The puck’s in the corner to Millen’s right, with Mike Zuke and two Penguins battling for it. Zuke gets a stick on it, knocking it right where Mike Crombeen is standing all alone and he slides it past Millen. After over four hours, it’s over: 4-3, St. Louis.

The Blues faced the Rangers in the second round, another team they finished well ahead of in the regular season. And again, they were tested hard by the Rangers, losing three of the first four games in the series. They’d lose the series in six. While they continued to be a good team, never once missing the playoffs between 1980 and 2004, they wouldn’t make it past the second round until 1986, where they lost a 1-0 game seven to the Calgary Flames.

Pittsburgh, meanwhile, would soon bottom out. After making, and quickly exiting, the 1982 playoffs, they’d fall to the bottom of the league, finishing in the bottom of the conference three straight seasons. In 1984, they drafted Mario Lemieux with the first overall pick and 10 seasons after this game, they’d beat Chicago in six games to win the Stanley Cup.

Want to watch this? Click here to watch a 30-minute version of this game at the Blues website.


Written by M.

October 5, 2012 at 9:00 am

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