The last day of the regular season in pro sports can be theater for the absurd.
In baseball, try 1910.
That’s when the St. Louis Browns purposely played their third baseman near the outfield grass in a doubleheader against Cleveland’s Nap Lajoie in an attempt to let him beat out widely despised Ty Cobb for the AL batting crown. Lajoie wound up with seven bunt singles. (Alas, Cobb still got the title and Browns’ manager Jack O’Connor was subsequently kicked out of the league).
In the NFL, try 1980.
That season ended when the visiting Eagles sprayed champagne in the losing locker room at Texas Stadium after rallying from a 35-10 fourth-quarter deficit to fall only 35-27. Philly’s objective to take home the NFC East title was merely to lose by fewer than 25 points, which would give them the edge in the applicable net points in division games tiebreaker.
In the NHL, though, the outlandish end to the 1970 season might have them all beat.
Especially in the eyes of old-time New York Rangers fans and Hall of Fame winger Rod Gilbert.
Setting the stage, the Rangers woke up the morning of Sunday, April 5, trailing two-time defending champion Montreal 92 points to 90 in the standings for the fourth and final playoff berth in the Eastern Conference.
That afternoon, New York was to play host to Detroit in a nationally televised game. That evening, Montreal was in Chicago .
Making matters more dire for the Rangers was the fact that not only did they have to beat the Red Wings and for the Black Hawks (as they were known then) to beat the Canadiens, but New York had to outscore Montreal by five goals on this day to win the tiebreaker – goals scored during the season.
All of which led to one of the zaniest day in league history.
"I was crazy beat up," Gilbert said in a recent phone interview regarding his physical state that Sunday morning, mere hours after the Rangers were trounced 6-2 in Detroit on Saturday night. "It was hard to play the next afternoon with us being really behind the 8-ball and Detroit (locked in third place) being very strong."
Rangers coach Emile Francis, though, remained ever hopeful. He was quoted immediately after that loss in Detroit as saying: "This game is slippery. It’s played on ice. We’re not out yet, and we won’t stop fighting until the last soldier is dead."
The Rangers started fast in their season-ending matinee when Gilbert, who had had a relatively disappointing season, scored 36 seconds into the first period.
"I remember my named being announced, ‘Goal scored by Rod Gilbert,’ and receiving a booing ovation," he said. "The people had given up on us and that was their first chance to demonstrate how unhappy they were.
"For me, it was kind of shocking because I had never been booed before. I didn’t take it personally, but I didn’t like it."
New York kept on the pressure and after one period led 4-1, with the fickle fans going berserk and fueling the rampage. All of which was startling since New York had gone almost two months without scoring even three goals in any 20-minute session.
But unless the home team scored more, it wasn’t going be enough. Twenty seconds into the second period, Gilbert made it 5-1.
"When they announced my name that time," he said, "they cheered me and gave me a standing ovation – in the same game they booed me!"
Ron Stewart then scored for New York at 7:38 and 18:35 of the period, giving the Rangers a 7-2 lead going into the second intermission.
To that point New York had peppered Wings goalie Roger Crozier with 39 shots. But he hadn’t seen anything yet. The Rangers would send 26 more shots at him in the third period.
"We kept coming at them," Gilbert said. "I don’t think they played that hard. We were desperate."
In Gilbert’s eyes, the onslaught couldn’t have happened to a more deserving goaltender.
"Crozier and I had our differences," he said of the now-deceased netminder. "He cracked my ankle (earlier that season) – he slashed me. I had a hairline fracture.
"I stayed in a hospital bed for 10 days and spent my time thinking how I’m going to get Crozier back. And I did when I returned. I moved in close with the puck and slapped it at his head and knocked him out."
In that outlandish third period, Rangers goalie Ed Giacomin often went to the bench for an extra attacker as they scored twice more.
It made no matter that Detroit had a pair of empty-net goals.
Final score, 9-5.
As evening approached, the Rangers had to summon their energy to cheer on Chicago, which was in a heated battle with Boston for the top spot in the East.
"The whole team went to this little restaurant to have dinner and hang out," Gilbert said of the Rangers. "We had a tiny radio and were listening to the Canadiens’ station."
It turns out, that might have been one of the best-tasting, rollicking meals the Rangers ever had.
Midway through the third period, Montreal trailed 5-2. At which point, Canadiens coach Claude Ruel elected to pull goalie Rogie Vachon except for faceoffs near the Montreal net.
Even though Montreal played with six skaters to Chicago’s five most of the final 10 minutes, it never scored again.
The Black Hawks, meanwhile set a franchise record with seven goals in the third, five of them into a barren net.
The Rangers partied on.
"I was happy – we were happy," Gilbert said. "They hadn’t missed the playoffs in (22) years. I’m from Montreal, so, to knock them out, that was quite satisfying."
The Rangers’ joyride ended quickly -- in the first round against Boston. They lost the opener 8-2 en route to being ousted 4-2 by the eventual champions, who then swept past both Chicago and St. Louis to capture the Stanley Cup.
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