The Philadelphia Flyers and New York Rangers will get reacquainted in the very first round of the 2014 Stanley Cup playoffs. The division rivals have met 10 times previously in the postseason but not since 1997, with the Flyers enjoying a 6-4 series edge. No matter how this series turns out, it cannot impact the sport the way their first encounter did 40 years ago.
1973-74 changed history. The conventional wisdom in 1974 was that no “Original Six” team could possibly lose a playoff series to an expansion club. It was the same ill-considered logic that so-called experts displayed toward the NFL and AFL before the New York Jets upset the Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl III.
Aging Rangers team. In 1973-74, the New York Rangers were an aging club still chasing the dream of winning the team’s first Stanley Cup since 1940. The closest the recent crew of talented players had come was 1972 when they lost the finals to the Bobby Orr-led Boston Bruins. The strength of the Rangers was their famed GAG (goal-a-game) line of Rod Gilbert, Jean Ratelle and Vic Hadfield. However, by this time that line was already in decline and the best forward on the team was probably Walt Tkaczuk (father of future star Keith). Returning from balky knees and other nagging injuries, all-star defenseman Brad Park had one of his greatest seasons in 1973-74, piling up a career high 82 points. In his mid-30s, goalie Ed Giacomin was starting to slip a bit in net, suffering his first season with a goals against average over three since his rookie year.
Young and rising Flyers team. Meanwhile, the Philadelphia Flyers were a young team on the rise. Bobby Clarke and Rick MacLeish gave them two all-star centers, and Bill Barber was a top winger. Goalie Bernie Parent returned from the World Hockey Association, and before the season was out, fans in the Delaware Valley had established the saying, “Only God saves more than Bernie.” The Flyers had earned their Broad Street Bullies nickname. They had no fewer than three forwards (Dave Schultz, Bob “the Hound” Kelly and Don Saleski) who were employed primarily to harass and intimidate the opposition. The trio often spent more minutes of a game in the penalty box than they did on the ice.
Original Six mystique. The Flyers handily won the West Division with 112 points while the Rangers finished third in the East Division with 94 points. Yet many of the game’s prognosticators favored the Rangers to win when the teams clashed in the semi-final round. After all, the Rangers were an Original Six team and they were supposed to be invincible against the expansion clubs.
Flyers smash barriers. The Flyers won the tense seven-game tussle, with the home team prevailing in each game. It marked the first time an expansion team had ever topped an Original Six team. After besting the Rangers, the Flyers went on to beat another Original Six team, the Boston Bruins, in a six-game final. The Flyers thereby became the first expansion team to win a Stanley Cup, and it was the first of back-to-back Philly titles. Although their brawling and bullying tactics were deplored by many, the Flyers changed the way the game was played and proved once and for all that expansion teams could compete with the older established clubs.
Note: The Original Six teams were the Boston Bruins, Chicago Black Hawks, Detroit Red Wings, New York Rangers, Montreal Canadiens and Toronto Maple Leafs. The 1967 expansion teams that doubled the size of the league were the California Golden Seals, Los Angeles Kings, Minnesota North Stars, Philadelphia Flyers, Pittsburgh Penguins and St. Louis Blues. By 1973-74 the league had expanded further by adding the Atlanta Flames, Buffalo Sabres, New York Islanders and Vancouver Canucks.
“Face-Off ’73-’74,” Pocket Books, a Division of Simon and Schuster Inc., 1974