Monday, April 19, 2010

Here Come the Hawks

Few players in any sport have had a rookie season to equal Tony Esposito's with the Blackhawks in 1969-70. He broke the NHL record for shutouts in a season and carried the Hawks from worst to first in the standings.


     Sunday, April 5, 1970, was one of the most memorable days in the NHL’s long history. It was the final day of the regular season. The Hawks and Boston were battling down to the wire for first place in the Eastern Division, Detroit had clinched third place, and Montreal had the upper hand over New York for the fourth and last playoff berth. The Rangers not only had to win and hope the Canadiens lost, but they also had to finish the season with more goals scored than Montreal (a tall order, since they were five goals behind entering play).
     New York held up its end of the bargain, blitzing Detroit 9-5 to finish the season 38-22-16 for 92 points. Boston defeated Toronto. So when the Hawks and Canadiens took the ice at the Stadium, each team knew what it had to do. If the Hawks won, they would tie the Bruins with 99 points but would be division champions because their 45 victories exceeded Boston’s 40. If the Canadiens won or tied, they would be in the playoffs and New York would be out. If the Canadiens lost, their record would be identical to New York’s but they could still make the playoffs by scoring five or more goals to top the Rangers’ total of 246 for the season.
     Before a standing-room-only crowd, the Canadiens struck first. Yvan Cournoyer’s goal off a nice feed from Jean Beliveau gave Montreal a 1-0 lead at 9:12 of the first period. Fans began to wonder if perhaps the Hawks’ Cinderella story wasn’t meant to have a happy ending. Tension mounted as Montreal goalie Rogatien Vachon repelled one assault after another until 15:49 of the period, when Jim Pappin’s slapshot from the blue line lit the lamp. Thus reassured, the Hawks took the lead just 95 seconds later when Doug Mohns set up a goal by Pit Martin. “I took my time, and I picked my spot,” Martin said. “I didn’t even see where the goalie was; all I saw was about eight inches of net.”
     The Hawks led 2-1 at the first intermission. Bobby Hull made it 3-1 at 1:24 of the second period, but Beliveau’s tally put the Canadiens back in the game just two minutes later. For the rest of the second period and well into the third, the Hawks clung to a 3-2 edge.
     Then it was Pit Martin time. After the previous season, Martin had called the Hawks the most selfish, underachieving team he’d ever seen, rubbing more than a few teammates the wrong way. Now Martin put his money where his mouth was. At 7:15 of the third period, he scored the goal that gave the Hawks a commanding 4-2 lead. Three and a half minutes later, he scored again to complete the hat trick.
     The game was now out of reach, the champagne was on ice, and the Stadium rocked with chants of “We’re Number 1!”
     Montreal coach Claude Ruel realized that the Canadiens could not win the game, so he hatched a desperate plan to get the three more goals needed to surpass the Rangers for fourth place. For the last eight minutes of the game, goalie Vachon was replaced by an extra attacker each time Montreal got possession of the puck; this was the only way the Canadiens could get anything going.
     Ruel’s gamble backfired, to say the least. Almost every time Vachon skated to the bench, the Hawks stole the puck and gleefully swatted it into the empty net—first Eric Nesterenko, then Bobby Hull, Dennis Hull, Cliff Koroll, and Gerry Pinder. The fans were beside themselves, roaring more loudly after each goal. The final score was 10-2.
     The somewhat bizarre ending disguised the fact that the game had been hard fought and well played for over 50 minutes. When the horn finally sounded, the Hawks had become the first team in NHL history to go from last place to first in one year—and they had earned it, winning twice against the fabled Canadiens to end the season. Beginning with Tony Esposito’s shutout in Montreal on October 25, the Hawks had gone 45-17-8. For the last 12 weeks of the season, they had gone 30-7-4.
     Although their record of 38-22-16 would have easily won the Western Division (home of the six three-year-old expansion teams), the Canadiens were out of the playoffs for the first time since 1948. For the first time ever, the postseason would not include either Montreal or Toronto.
     While his teammates showered each other with champagne and beer, Esposito sat quietly in a corner of the Hawks’ dressing room, exhausted. “He’s the guy who made the difference,” said Martin, indicating the man who seemed oblivious to the celebration going on around him. “He has made stops nobody could believe in game after game. He is the guy we’ve rallied around. I don’t think there ever has been a goaltender with a season like the one he’s had.”
     Esposito’s season for the ages had carried the Hawks from last place the year before to first place in 1970. It had also earned him the Vezina Trophy as outstanding goalie and the Calder as rookie of the year (he finished second to Boston’s Bobby Orr in the MVP balloting). He had played 63 games, allowing just one goal in 15 of them and setting a record with 15 shutouts. As quick to refuse credit as he was to accept blame, “Tony O” was matter-of-fact about his feats. “All the guys worked so hard for me,” he said. “They have all year. I kept thinking, ‘Don’t ease up; you don’t want to let them down.’”

Excerpted from Heydays: Great Stories in Chicago Sports
(c)2009, 2010 by Christopher Tabbert

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