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1971 Ranger-Leaf series: What happened in Game 4?

Whereas many young boys leave their love of sports behind as they wind their way to college and other more mature pursuits, I never lost my interest in the Leafs.

After the 1967 Cup win, when I was thirteen, the next three seasons saw the Leafs stumble badly. They made the playoffs only one of those years, and that one year were swept by the Bruins.

But something happened early in the 1970-’71 season, which turned out to be one of my favorite seasons following the Leafs as a young adult. After a slow start, the Leafs, sporting a new uniform look, beat Montreal in Toronto in early December and started playing solid hockey. Former Hab Jacques Plante had joined the Leafs, and provided steady net minding that first season in Toronto.

Norm Ullman had his best season since joining the Leafs on a line with Paul Henderson and Ron Ellis. And Dave Keon had his finest offensive season ever, centering two wingers who did not have a lot of NHL experience- Gary Monahan and Billy MacMillan. Macmillan provided toughness, Monaghan could fly, and Keon finished the season with 76 points- way behind Phil Esposito, though, who scored 76 goals that year. Nonetheless, Keon’s tremendous all-around play earned him selection to the Second All-Star team at the end of the 70-’71 season.

The Leafs had a very young defense, with Jim Dorey, Rick Ley, Mike Pelyk, Jim McKenny and Brian Glennie. Fortunately, Bobby Baun re-joined the Leafs part-way through that season and provided a veteran presence at the back end. (Rookie Brad Selwood was around but I don’t think he played in the playoffs.)

Importantly, Bernie Parent was acquired mid-season, to give the Leafs solid depth in goal.

The Leafs finished the season in fourth place, and drew the Rangers in the first round of the playoffs. The Rangers were loaded, with Eddie Giacomin and Gilles Villemuere in goal, Jim Neilson, Rod Seiling, Arnie Brown and Dale Rolfe on defense along with budding superstar Brad Park and former Leaf star Tim Horton.

Up front they were also deep, with Jean Ratelle, Walt Tkachuk and Pete Stemkowski providing strength up the middle.

The Leafs had a 4-2 lead in Game 1 in New York and were playing really well. However, the Rangers scored late in the second period on a fluky goal off the stick of Bobby Baun and then scored twice in the last period to win Game 1 in come-from-behind fashion.

The Leafs switched to Parent in Game 2; he was steady, and the Leafs beat the Rangers in a fight-filled game that saw Vic Hadfield throw Parent’s face mask up into the stands during one of the brawls.

That was the first playoff game win for Toronto since Game 6 of the 1967 Cup finals. I hoped the Leafs were on their way.

Game 3 in Toronto may have been the best game Toronto had played from beginning to end since that ’67 Cup final. The Leafs led 2-1 going into the third period after Paul Henderson scored a beautiful goal. Then, in the third period, Billy MacMillan set up Monahan for a tip in as Monahan was flying down his wing to clinch the victory.

The Leafs were on a roll, having played 3 strong playoff games in a row.

Now, there was one problem. Game 3 was on a Saturday night. Game 4, for reasons I don’t understand to this day, was the very next night in Toronto. That season the League scheduled 4 games in 5 nights in the first round of the playoffs.

The scheduling was a big enough issue in my mind, because I sensed the Leafs might not be ready after their strong performance in Game 3. However, just as game 4 was about to start, my friend Bill pulled into my family’s driveway unexpectedly. Bill didn’t have a passion for hockey, and was just dropping by to kill time. We were both in grade 12 and had been buddies since our first year of high school. But I liked watching important games by myself, and this didn’t feel right. Not for the biggest game of the year.

Then, when the game started, I could see the Leafs felt off, too.

I don’t know why, but they were flat, really flat. It may have been that they were playing their 4th game in 5 nights. They may have relaxed with a 2-1 lead in the series. I think part of it was that they really needed a day between games to take in their success (albeit modest), and then forget about Game 3 and get ready for Game 4. The quick turnaround didn’t allow for that.

I also know that Ranger GM and Coach Emile Francis told his big centers- Ratelle, Tkachuk and Stemkowski- to start leaning on Keon and Ullman and to use their size to advantage.

Whatever combination of the above, the Leafs gave the series away that night. They feel behind 4-0 by the second period, and while they fought back in the third period with then rookie Darryl Sittler scoring twice, they fell 4-2.

Toronto proceeded to lose the series in 6 games, with former Leafs Horton, Ron Stewart and especially Bob Nevin playing a role in ending the Leafs’ season. (Nevin scored the overtime winner in Game 6 in Toronto, after Jim McKenny scored late in the third period to send the game into overtime.)

What had been a surprisingly strong season, and a stunningly successful beginning to the playoffs, came to a sudden halt.

How a team could play so well for 3 games under immense pressure, then come out so flat in Game 4, is one of those mysteries about sports that is impossible to understand.

Stuff happens. But that was a series—and a season—that should have lasted longer.

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