Almost Famous: The '70s were cruel to Chicago, Buffalo, and the Rangers
Sports history is littered with great teams that dominated their regular seasons only to fall short of ultimate glory in the playoffs. Our writers are paying tribute to those teams who were Almost Famous. After tackling MLB, NHL, and NFL, up next is another NHL edition.
Rarely in sports does a decade, a familiar yet stilted unit of measurement, sum up an era so tidily. Three teams dominated the NHL in the 1970s: Bobby Orr’s Boston Bruins, the Broad Street Bully Philadelphia Flyers, and the dynastic Montreal Canadiens, who bridged Jean Beliveau's last hurrah with the incredible reign of Guy Lafleur, Ken Dryden, and company.
Other franchises could have won a title; three came within games of doing so. But they never broke through, and some of history's longest Stanley Cup droughts persisted instead.
Those poor recurrent runners-up were the Chicago Black Hawks - the name's two words weren't merged until 1986 - the New York Rangers, and the Buffalo Sabres, who each iced at least a few excellent teams at varying points of the '70s that invariably fell short in the playoffs. Sometimes they lost to each other. Sometimes they were favored in the Cup final against, say, Montreal, only to squander a two-goal lead at home in Game 7.
Different strengths turned Chicago, New York, and Buffalo into contenders. The Rangers had starpower and were built to defend; the Sabres' famed French Connection line powered offenses that scored nearly 4.5 goals per game. All three aligned behind a common sob story: In a league that expanded in phases from 12 to 18 teams, they were on the right side of the competitive imbalance that ensued, but couldn't top the whole gauntlet in any one year.
Chicago was first to suffer from this period's particular cruelty.
Three Hall of Famers - forwards Bobby Hull and Stan Mikita and goaltender Tony Esposito - played for the Black Hawks in the early '70s, an assemblage of top-tier talent on par with that of Boston (Orr, Phil Esposito) and Montreal as Beliveau handed the torch to Lafleur. Like several fellow contenders in a polarized league, coach Billy Reay's clubs frequently surpassed the 1.00 mark in Hockey Reference's Simple Rating System (SRS), which gauges a team's strength based on its schedule and goal differential. (By comparison, no 2019-20 team was above 0.75 when the season paused.)
Chicago's regular-season promise was rendered hollow when Tony Esposito, who won the Vezina and Calder Trophies in 1970, flopped in a semifinal sweep that season against the soon-to-be-champion Bruins. The Black Hawks came similarly close in 1972, when a superior Rangers team edged them in the semis; 1973 was the year of a surprising run to the final following Hull's jump to the World Hockey Association; and 1974 ended, along with another Vezina season from Esposito, against Boston in six games.
In all, Chicago's best five-year span produced losses in three semifinal series and two Cup finals. No playoff defeat hurt more than 1971, when Montreal's quarterfinal upset of all-time juggernaut Boston (SRS: 2.29) established Chicago as the remaining favorite. Up three games to two against the Canadiens in the final, the Black Hawks fell 4-3 in Game 6 in Montreal and then blew a 2-0 lead at home in the decisive matchup. Such is the risk of letting Jacques Lemaire aim, fire, and score from the neutral zone.
Though Montreal delivered this smarting blow, Bruins-related misfortune bookended and shaped Chicago's lost half-decade. Black Hawks general manager Tommy Ivan kneecapped his team with an infamous 1967 trade that sent Phil Esposito to Beantown alongside Fred Stanfield and Ken Hodge. Chicago got one back on Boston by signing Orr in 1976 - after the mangling of the wondrous defenseman's left knee ensured his best days were behind him.
Rather than end sometime in the '70s, the Black Hawks' spell without a Cup totaled 49 years (1961-2010). They were upstaged in that category by the Rangers, whose record 54-year drought (1940-1994) endured because the GAG Line wasn't able to buck it.
Three Rangers teams were stellar in this era: 1971, 1972, and 1973. In the first of those years, they lost in the semis to a better Chicago squad; in the third, Chicago's semifinal win without Hull constituted a big upset. The intervening '72 season marked the peak of Jean Ratelle, Vic Hadfield, and Rod Gilbert's cumulative powers: these members of the GAG (goal-a-game) Line became the NHL's first trio to score 40 goals apiece. Bolstered by the Hall of Famers Brad Park on defense and Ed Giacomin in net, New York recorded a .699 points percentage despite losing Art Ross Trophy candidate Ratelle to a broken ankle in early March.
When the playoffs opened a month later, New York ousted the reigning champion Habs in six games and then swept Chicago, setting up a gem of a meeting for the Cup. Boston was the opponent, and though the Rangers held Phil Esposito without a goal all series, Ratelle managed just one assist after hastening his return from injury. The Bruins won Games 1, 2, and 4 by one goal. In Game 6 they clinched the title at Madison Square Garden with a 3-0 shutout, the product of a team effort that Orr, who scored the winner, described as a "perfect game."
Like Chicago, the Rangers' best shot to win had faded by the time Buffalo, an expansion entrant in 1971, arrived on the scene in earnest. The franchise has never won a Cup, a deficiency that was consummated in the '70s despite four straight seasons of standout play. Led by Gilbert Perreault, Rick Martin, and Rene Robert - the French Connection line - the Sabres could skate with anyone and score in bunches. But after the comparably great Flyers beat them in the 1975 final, they went on to bow out in three consecutive second rounds.
In that '75 season, Buffalo posted a .706 points percentage and then authored a signature six-game victory over the powerhouse Habs (SRS: 1.72) in the conference finals, delaying the dawn of Montreal's next dynasty by a year. Two memories resonate from the subsequent Cup final. One is the Fog Game, when humid weather and the Buffalo Memorial Auditorium's lack of air conditioning conspired to cloud the action at ice level. (How severe was the fog? We don't call Game 3 the Bat Game, even though Sabres center Jim Lorentz straight up killed one with his stick that same night.)
The second memory: Bernie Parent shutting the door. Buffalo won the Fog Game 5-4 in overtime, but the Flyers' netminder still allowed only 11 goals in the series, stymying the Sabres' vaunted offense with a .937 save percentage. Parent cemented his Conn Smythe Trophy performance when the series returned to The Aud for Game 6: his 32 stops powered Philly's 2-0 Cup-clinching win.
So went a decade that was uniquely unforgiving to all but a select few teams. Final confirmation of this trend came in 1979, when Lafleur, Lemaire, and Dryden's impossibly stacked Canadiens rolled to the title, their fourth in four years, with a five-game win in the Cup final.
Montreal's vanquished opponent: the Rangers, who were nowhere near as loaded as in the GAG Line's heyday, but who resurged unexpectedly that season to pull off a seismic upset in the conference finals. With Phil Esposito - acquired from Boston for Park and Ratelle a few years earlier - in tow, the Rangers eliminated the heavily favored New York Islanders in six games, postponing the coronation of a new dynasty until 1980.
Nick Faris is a features writer at theScore.