Monday, April 25, 2011

Greatest playoff games: #7 Capitals 6, Cleveland 2 (1950)

So far, our greatest playoff games have been scintillating comebacks and sudden (or sudden-death) victories.

This one isn't.

It's on our list for the sheer dominance of the Indianapolis Capitals against a team many observers believed was one of the greatest minor-league hockey teams ever assembled -- the 1950 Cleveland Barons. The Barons had a future Hall of Famer tending the nets in Johnny Bower. They had *eight* players who scored at least 27 goals, including six 30-goal scorers. Some were pretty familiar faces, as 100-point man Les Douglas, 36-goal scorer Pete Leswick, defenseman Steve Kraftcheck, 21-goal man Steve Wochy had all played for the Capitals. It also sported 46-goal scorer Roy Kelly, a veteran blueline -- a nearly-unbeatable team. The Barons were so strong, team owner Jim Hendy would apply for NHL membership a couple of years later. They were turned down, largely because of the influence of James Norris, who was concerned about a team located so close to Detroit potentially siphoning the Red Wings' fan base.

However, the Red Wings' farm club was the Barons' opposition. And like Cleveland, it had a future Hall of Famer between the pipes in Terry Sawchuk, a netminder who was finishing his second season in Indianapolis. His play would pretty much guarantee the parent Wings would move Harry Lumley and give Sawchuk a shot. He would move up to Detroit permanently the next season and become the backbone of the Red Wings' early 1950s dynasty. While Cleveland had eight 25+-goal scorers, Indianapolis had three -- Pat Lundy, Jerry Reid and Rod Morrison. However, it had a young squad that included Fred Glover -- who would later be named one of the greatest minor-league players of all time -- high-scoring Enio Scilisizzi, NHL mainstays Al Dewsbury and Calum MacKay and a bunch of guys who would have strong minor-league careers and enjoy cups of coffee in the NHL. The most decorated Capital skater would become Marty Pavelich, but he only played six games before getting the call up to Detroit.

But the Caps had Terry Sawchuk -- a young, but promising goaltender who had enjoyed his 20th birthday halfway through the season. He had posted a 3.08 GAA during the year, but had been stellar during the postseason, allowing only four goals in four games before the Calder Cup Finals. Not only that, but he had performed so brilliantly filling in for Lumley in Detroit, that the Wings would trade their Stanley Cup-winning goaltender in the offseason to make room for Sawchuk.

In the regular season, the Barons and Capitals had gone 1-2 in the AHL's west division. But the Barons (45-15-10) had totaled 100 points in a 70-game season, outpacing the Caps by 19 points. The AHL's playoff format at the time pitted the two division champs against each other in a best-of-5 first round, while the second and third-place teams played a playoff in a series of best-of-3 tilts. The Barons dispatched the Buffalo Bisons with ease, while the Caps rolled past the St. Louis Flyers and Providence Reds in a pair of two-game sweeps by a combined score of 20-4.

That set the stage for a championship series that few thought the Caps had a chance to win. Sure, they had Sawchuk, but Cleveland had Bower and a much more potent offense. That, and Sawchuk had suffered a myriad of injuries at the end of the year. Needless to say, many observers were surprised when the Caps scored three second-period goals -- two on the power play -- and won Game 1 by a 4-1 score. Sawchuk had posted his fifth straight game of allowing one goal. But it couldn't last. The Caps were outshot 44-32, and Sawchuk had to play brilliantly.

However, by stealing a game in Cleveland, it made Game 2 pivotal. The Barons would not want to go back to Indianapolis down 2-0, even with a supposedly far superior team. Cleveland was pretty confident. Captain Danny Sprout said they didn't need to be worried because of the 44-32 shot margin in the first game.

On that April 8 night, 9,469 fans streamed into Cleveland Arena to see their team tie the series. They liked what they saw early -- the Barons peppered Sawchuk with shots, outshooting the Caps 14-5 in the opening period. However, the Indianapolis goaltender kicked them all out. No score after 20 minutes.

Pat Lundy gave the Caps a short-lived lead in the second, taking a feed from Al Dewsbury in stride and punching it past Bower. But the Barons came back, with Les Douglas and Johnny Holota scoring goals 2:11 apart -- the second coming with Calum McKay in the box -- to take a 2-1 lead.

Everything was going according to plan ... until Dewsbury broke up a Cleveland rush. Again, he headmanned Lundy. Again, Lundy beat Bower. Just like that, it was 2-2, and suddenly, things were getting a bit nervous in Cleveland. Cleveland kept coming -- outshooting the Capitals 13-7 in the middle period and 27-12 so far for the game -- but it was 2-2.

Maybe Sawchuk was that good, and not just some guy on a hot streak.

Whatever, the third period would be pivotal. It wouldn't be close.

Just 59 seconds in, Rod Morrison fired a shot that Bower stopped. But Joe Lund was there to bury the rebound, and the Capitals led 3-2.

Could it be happening again?

They came in waves after that. Don Morrison scored on a feed from his brother Rod at 8:03 to make it a two-goal advantage, firing into an open net shortly after the Caps killed off a penalty to Gordon Haidy. In a 62-second span, Lundy and Haidy finished the Barons off. Lundy scored the hat-trick goal at 11:41, then fed Haidy for a tally at 12:43.

The shell-shocked Barons didn't quite know what to do. Their fans started throwing trash onto the ice. It wouldn't matter.

The Capitals were headed back to Indianapolis up 2-0. The Indianapolis Star would print a doctored photo showing Sawchuk with four arms -- it certainly looked that way to anyone who had been facing him in the playoffs. The Caps would return home and finish off the sweep in a pair of one-goal games -- winning 4-3 in Game 3 thanks to third-period goals from Nels Podolsky and Haidy to break a 2-2 tie, and 3-2 in the clincher on April 13. In that one, the Caps never trailed and held leads of 2-0 and 3-1 thanks to Fred Glover's two goals.

For the second time in eight years, the Calder Cup would be headed to the Circle City. Both times, they were clinched at the Coliseum, with 7,727 to enjoy the championship. It would be the Capitals' last. Several players would be called up to Detroit and participate in the Red Wings' Stanley Cup championship that spring -- creating a full organizational championship. Indianapolis would experience the same in 1982 and 1983 when the Checkers and parent New York Islanders would sweep titles.

The Barons would rally to win championships in three of the next four years, and would be the AHL's flagship franchise for much of the 1950s, winning four Calder Cups and advancing to the finals six times in an eight-season span between 1950-57. They'd compete in the AHL until 1972, when they moved to Jacksonville to make room for the WHA's Cleveland Crusaders, and later an NHL franchise called the Barons. The Capitals' luck wouldn't be as fortunate. They would have another good year in 1951, but without Sawchuk, their fortunes would dwindle. In 1952, they had their worst season in franchise history, going 22-40-6. Not surprisingly, crowds also began to dwindle, especially with television beginning to enter homes and causing such a phenomenon to happen across minor league sports. The Capitals franchise would fold after that year. Both cities would go without hockey for long stretches -- Indianapolis from 1962-74, with a one-month respite in 1963 -- Cleveland from 1978-1992, from the folding of the NHL's Barons to the coming of the IHL Lumberjacks, which would allow the Indianapolis-Cleveland rivalry to resume for seven more years.

There's a sequel to the story. Fast-forward 17 years. It's 1967, and both Sawchuk and Bower are at the end of illustrious careers that would lead them to Hockey Hall of Fame enshrinement. They had one last great run left in each of them. Teammates on the Toronto Maple Leafs, the two goaltenders led the Leafs to an epic defeat of the Montreal Canadiens in the Stanley Cup Finals, a last hurrah for two great goaltenders of the 1950s and 1960s. But their story together began in the AHL, with an epic battle led by Sawchuk tending an epic upset.

Game boxscore
Game 2: April 8, 1950 at Cleveland Arena
Indianapolis: Starters: G-Sawchuk, D-Lund, Dewsbury, LW-Podolsky, C-D. Morrison, RW-R. Morrison. Spares: Raglan, Woit, McKay, Reid, Scilisizzi, Lundy, Glover, Haidy, Uniac, Quackenbush.
Cleveland: Starters: G-Bower, D-Reigle, Sproul, LW-Schultz, C-Douglas, RW-Wochy. Spares: Buller, Williams, Leswick, Taylor, Cerasiano, Sloan, Holota, Carse, Dawes, Kraftcheck.
First period
no scoring
Penalties: McKay (I) interference, 2:30; Dewsbury (I) charging, 6:13; Buller (C) interference, 9:00; Dewsbury (I) and Dawes (C) roughing, 9:11 (coincidental minors); Scilisizzi (I) and Kraftcheck (C) roughing, time NA (coincidental minors); McKay (I) cross-checking, time NA; Taylor (C) tripping, time NA: Kraftcheck (C) and Podolsky (I) roughing, 19:00 (coindental minors)
Second period
IND-Lundy (Dewsbury), 6:03
CLE-Douglas (Wochy, Reigle), 7:58
CLE-Holota (Carse, Reigle), 10:09 (pp)
IND-Lundy (Dewsbury), 12:51
Penalties: McKay (I) holding, 9:38
Third period
IND-Lund (R. Morrison), :59
IND-D. Morrison (R. Morrison, Podolsky), 8:03
IND-Lundy (Dewsbury), 11:41
IND-Haidy (Lundy, Raglan), 12:43
Penalties: Haidy (I) tripping, 5:30; Douglas (C) slashing, time NA; Glover (I) slashing, 17:01
Shots on goal: IND 5-7-16-28 (Bower 22 saves), CLE 14-13-12-39 (Sawchuk 37 saves)
Power play: IND 0-3, CLE 1-6
Att.: 9,469
Previous entries
#8: Chiefs 3, Louisville 2 (1958 IHL Turner Cup Finals) 
#9: Ice 7, Cedar Rapids 6 (2009 USHL East Division Semifinal)  
#10: Checkers 6, Colorado 5 (1984 CHL Semifinal)

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