Hockey's Historic Highlights

The Rise and Fall of Playoff Heroes

Hockey's Historic Highlights

Glen R. Goodhand

The Rise and Fall of Playoff Heroes

Posted May 30, 2014

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In the April 27 issue of the Toronto Sun, Ken Wiebe focuses on Philadelphia’s Jason Akeson’s impressive contribution to the Flyers competitiveness in the 2014 post season: “There’s no way of knowing for sure if Jason on his way to joining John Druce and Chris Kontos as virtually coming out of nowhere to provoke an unlikely offensive spark during the Stanley Cup playoffs. Akeson has a goal and an assist in four games, but he has been one of the most consistent forwards, which is a feat when you consider he appeared in only one NHL game during the regular season”.

  As for the aforementioned Kontos, with the exception of the last seven games of the 1988-89 campaign, he had been playing in Switzerland. After managing two tallies with the Kings before the schedule wound down he burst of out shinny’s oblivion with nine markers in just 11 post-season contests—almost doubling the output of his incomparable captain and teammate, Wayne Gretzky. Yet he lasted only six games in the Big Time the following year,

  It was Druce who turned collective hockey heads two seasons later. Called up from Baltimore to the Capitals at Christmas, his eight goals and three helpers in 45 games were less than impressive. Yet when Washington began their drive for the championship he made a Clarke Kent to Superman switch, with 13 tallies in as many matches, adding one later for 14 in 15 contests. The May 18 Hockey News cover story headlined his accomplishments with: “Out of Nowhere…..Druce Makes Capital Gains in Washington!” His boss, Bud Poile, assured that he didn’t expect him to be playoff trivia a la Chris Kontos!” Unfortunately, he followed his spotlight feat with some rather ordinary efforts on his gradual way out of the world’s premier circuit..    

   One of the first to qualify for the flash-in-the-pan file was goaltender Joe Miller. During the 1927-28 campaign he was promoted to the New York Americans from St. Paul of the AHA. But after 28 games which were described by some as “not being auspicious”, he was farmed out the Niagara Falls of the Can Pro loop. When Lorne Chabot of the Rangers was hurt, on a moments notice, even though he had not been on skates for four weeks, he was rushed in to fill the gap. (This was the series in which Lester Patrick stepped into the gap for one contest) After three games, including one shutout, his goals-against-average was 1.0. One newspaper report said “The work of Joe Miller was nothing short of wonderful!” Another opined that “after his display in the present (playoff) series, he’ll be back as an NHL regular next year.” He was a veritable stonewall when the Ranger’s defense faltered, and came second only to Frank Boucher in heroics during the team’s Stanley Cup triumph. 

   He was snapped up by the Pittsburgh Pirates in the fall of 1928; but over the next three schedules between the Pittsburgh/Philadelphia uprights, he had Goals Against Averages of 3.69, 4:39, and 4:93. He faded away into oblivion with Syracuse of the IHL in ’31-’32, finished after only 20 contests.

   During the 1932-33 campaign, Ken Doraty of the Maple Leafs was the smallest skater in the NHL, standing 5’7” and weighing 133 pounds. But he stood tall in the post season action. He is better known for his unique feat of tallying three markers in overtime in 1934. At that time the extra frame ran 10 minutes, regardless—and Doraty lit the lamp three consecutive times before the gong sounded.

  But he made a name for himself the previous year on two occasions. In the quarter final matchup with the Bruins he potted the winner in the longest game in the league’s history. At the 4:46 mark of the sixth extra frame, he managed to slip one by Boston’s weary “Tiny” Thompson, which not only proved to be the winning goal, but which eliminated the Beantowners from further competition.

  Unfortunately burning up all that energy to best the Bruins, meant a bunch of tired Blue and White competitors as they faced the more rested Rangers on their home ice the very next night. In that best of three series the Buds managed only one victory—the third game—and Doraty was responsible for two of the three tallies. “Cagie”, as he was nicknamed, led the loop in post-season scoring with five goals—the same number he had managed during the regular 38-game schedule. In three seasons of part time duty, he scored only 12 times more.

  Goalies have risen to the occasion in series leading up to hockey’s most cherished championship. And the same year Doraty was receiving rave notices for bulging the twine, a slender Scot by the name of Andy Aitkenhead was displaying heroics in keeping the disc OUT of the cage. He was a freshman when he stepped between the pipes in that same saw-off described above. He had posted a respectable 2.16 goal-against-average in 48 regular season contests. But he surprised all and sundry by allowing only 13 goals in eight playoff matches, leading the Broadway Blueshirts to the championship in the process. The Leafs beat him only four times in as many games, with the final match ending in a shutout for the rookie backstop.

  He was steady for the Rangers in the 1933-34 season, although New York didn’t get past the first round in the playoffs. But, he only made it as far as game ten in his third year—yielding a 4.46 Goals-against-average. He never played in the Big Time again.

   Another twine tender who matched this hot, then cold, scenario was Alfie Moore. He commenced his pay-for-play tenure in 1927-28 with Kitchener Millionaires of the Can Pro circuit, and moved twelve times in pro circles before his chance at shinny’s elite level took place. Referred to in 1937-38 as the NHL’s “spare netminder”, he had been playing with Toronto’s farm club, the Hornets in Pittsburgh. With the IAHL season completed he returned home to the Queen City to contemplate his future.

   On April 5th, the hometown Maple Leafs hosted the Chicago Blackhawks for their opening game of their best-of-five playoff series. The Windy City contingent was faced with playing without their star goalie, Mike Karakas, who had a broken toe. The Windy City powers-that-be arranged for the Ranger’s Davey Kerr to take his place. In fact he was already in the dressing room getting ready for the puck to drop. But Conn Smythe would have none of that. He had already sent word to Moore that he might be needed for the contest. Erroneously reported that he was tracked down in a pub, he was actually at home. When he learned that Smythe’s alternate plan implied he was a lesser light than Kerr, he was hopping mad. He vowed that he would “beat the Leafs even if he had to eat the puck!”

  He did everything but—playing magnificently in the Hawks 3-1 win. He was not needed for any further in the series, played only three more games in the NHL, and finished his pro tenure in the AHL.

  Just one year later, an outstanding performance brought about the birth of one of the most unusual nicknames in the game’s history. John Melvin (Mel) Hill became a full time skater for the Bruins that season, racking up a respectable 20 points during 46 games. But in quarter-final playoff tilt against the Rangers, he rose to the occasion in grand fashion. The first two matches went into overtime—the first one stretching into third extra frame. Mel scored the winner in that one, then followed up with the tie-breaker in game two. After another Hub victory, New York took the next three. And it was again in the third overtime period in the seventh match that Mr. Hill once more came through with the winner.

  He tallied three more in the 12 post-season contests. But it was his three in extra innings which earned him the “Sudden Death Mel” moniker. He hardly slouched following that amazing feat, but the rest of his seven seasons in the big time were—rather ordinary!

    On the night of March 24, 1949, this writer had his ear glued to the radio as Foster Hewitt called the second game of the Toronto/Boston semi-final. As the custom was in those golden days of radio, reports continued to come in from the Detroit/Montreal series. It seemed like a one man show for a skater whose name prompted me to silently query, “Gerry who?” Three times the Hab’s counters were “Plamondon from Reay”—and the fourth, in the 4-3 victory for the Mount Royal sextet, was “Reay from Plamondon”. One of those tallies gave the Canadiens the victory in overtime.

   Three games later, on April 2nd, he had another outstanding game, potting two of the three scores which gave the Habs a 3-1 win. Twice during the war years he had tried out for the big club, totaling 11 NHL contest. In the ’48-’49 campaign he had managed five goals in 27 contests, Suddenly, out of nowhere, he matched that total in seven tilts. 

   Sadly, he proved to be a flash-in-the-pan. In 37 games the following schedule, he bulged the twine only once. That bought him a permanent ticket to riding the buses in the minors and the amateur ranks over the next eight years. 

  Pentti Lund was the second Finnish-born skater to play in the NHL( Albert Pudas was the first—he participated in four contests with the St. Pats in 1926-27). In 1947 and 1948 he competed in one and two playoff games respectively with the Bruins. But it was in his second campaign as a full-timer, and that with the New York Rangers, that he made headlines. The semi-finals between the Blueshirts and the Canadiens got underway on March 29, and it was in the third contest when the gentlemanly winger drew the attention of the hockey world. That evening he took three shots the Hab’s cage and all of them went in. This prompted biased Montrealers to nickname him “Lucky Lund”. He also assisted on a marker by Don Raleigh.

Pentti LundPentti Lund

  It was significant that this line, which was rounded out by Ed Slowinski, was pitted against the renowned “Punch Line” of Richard, Lach, and Blake. Not only did Lund major in the offense of the game, but as the press put it: “…he played a tremendous defensive game ‘shadowing’ the Rocket. When the best-of-seven concluded with New York winning four games to one, “Penny” had totaled four goals and three helpers, and Richard registered but a single point. He ended up being the top point-maker in the post season.

  Maybe he was “lucky”. The next season he slumped to 20 points, was traded to Boston, for whom he managed but eight goals in 77 games. He then finished his career at the Senior “A” level.

  Gerry Ehman is probably best remembered for playing the roll of a bronco, when crazy Eddie Shack used him to play “horsey”, when the former was with Oakland and the latter with the Sabres. The 1958-59 post season came within a whisker of having TWO playoff heroes who faded quickly. But Marcel Bonin, who had shown little up to that point in his career, yet ended up second in post-season points, actually settled into a short but steady career in the Big Time.

  So it was Ehman who fits the template we have been using. Up until that season he had spent 60 minutes with Boston and six games in the Motor City. But Punch Imlach took a shot in the dark, pairing him with Frank Mahovolich and Billy Harris over the last 38 games of that schedule. In the semi finals against Boston and finals against Montreal he surprised with 13 points, and was third in Stanley Cup playoff scoring. Unfortunately in 83 games with the Buds over two campaigns he managed but 13 points. Although expansion in 1967 game him his second wind, even with the heightened goal-scoring which followed, he barely held his own the Seals over four seasons, after half a decade in the AHL.

   As we move into the home stretch of this missive, our attention is turned again to what is popularly referred to today as the “blue paint”. Again we acknowledge that in the words of Dick Irvin Sr: “If you have goaltending you have everything; if you don’t, you have nothing!” Again and again twine tenders have made the difference between the penthouse and the outhouse in the post season. In most cases, those who have risen to the occasion have either been solid rock stoppers already—as Turk Broda was wont to do; or they have stepped into the gap during that crucial time of the season, and have continued to shine—a la Ken Dryden.

  John Davidson does not fall into either category. He was so impressive in Junior that he stepped into the NHL without stopping at “GO” in the minors. But during his 10 years at the elite level, he didn’t show all star credentials. His goals-against-average was seldom much below 3.00, and a couple of instances it bordered on 4.00 or above.

  Still, 1978-79 turned out to be his year when the playoffs got underway. First facing the Flyers, it was claimed that he was the key figure in taking the Rangers as far as they went. It was confirmed by Bill Barber’s comment: “He left me talking to myself. You wonder what you have to do to get one by him!”

  They faced the cross-town Islanders in the next round, and were given little chance of handling the squad who finished first over all. But J.D. was determined to write a different script. They proceeded to put their fellow Big Apple sextet out, and, as one newspaper put it: “John Davidson was been splendid in goal”. Another added: “He has been the prime factor in the team’s success!” In the end the Canadiens got the better of them. But the big, fun-loving, talkative backstop had enjoyed his day in court. His 2.28 goals-against-average placed him third in the post-season netminder’s fraternity.

  He had a decent 1979-80 campaign, but his “fall from grace” came about mainly due to knee problems. In ’80-’81 his average ballooned to 4.16 during the regular season and 5:45 in the playoffs.

  Steve Penny’s shinny biography includes a Cinderella chapter, qualifying him to be included in this expose. Having played a mere four games for the Habs, he was summoned from the Nova Scotia Voyagers to stand in the gap for the 1984 playoffs.

When it was all said and done it he was credited with being “the catalyst behind Montreal’s shining ride to the Prince of Wales final”

  He had played four out of the last six matches of the regular season—all of which he lost—including a 7-0 drubbing by the Islanders. But, since Wamsley and Sevigny had struggled over the course of the schedule, Coach Jacques Lemaire went on a hunch, and started the inexperienced Penny against the Bruins. He promptly set the pace in a 3-0 games sweep of the Beantown six. He was Johnny-on-the-spot in the Habs six-game win over the Nordiques. Even though they lost to the Islanders in the next round, it was agreed that “his play was spectacular on the playoffs!” He had three shutouts in15 games, leading the goaltending fraternity in that department.

  Montreal was sure they had another Ken Dryden in tow, so they signed him to a three-year contract, and slotted him into the number one spot for 1984-85. His 3.08 numbers that season were respectable, though not equal to his playoff boom.

  Like Davidson, his slide down the slippery slope of the goaltending bluffs came partly because of a leg injury. He managed only 18 games that year. But someone by the name of Patrick Roy filled the gap rather capably in his absence. Voila! It was off to the Winnipeg Jets for Mr. Penny. The handwriting was on the wall. In 15 games over the next two campaigns, his averages were 4.59 and 4.68. And that was the last of Steve Penny.

  Playoff success can be like having a good night at the bowling alley. It can simply be a one shot thing. It has happened again and again—and no one knows why. 

  Had the Canadiens continued along the Stanley Cup trail, perhaps Dustin Tokarski may have donned the mantel of short term playoff hero. But since they didn’t, who knows—Dominic Moore may imitate his clutch performance in the deciding match of the New York/Montreal series—simply affirming that he is one of the most underrated skaters in  hockey today.

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