Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Greatest playoff games #1: Racers 4, Cincinnati Stingers 3 (1977)

(Listen to Bob Lamey's call of Gene Peacosh's game-winning goal)

We have come to the last installment of the Greatest Playoff Games segment. A lot of pretty good games just missed the cut -- including a couple in the Ice's 2000 championship run, and some of the Racers' eight postseason victories.

But #1 was a no-brainer from the start.

It was 1977. The Indianapolis Racers had won the WHA's East Division with a losing record and an incredible late-season flurry the year before, but eventually lost to the New England Whalers in an epic seven-game series. But that run captivated the city, and the Racers were among the WHA's top teams in attendance in 1976-77.

The WHA was as slimmer league in 1976-77, cutting down to 12 teams to start the year -- it had started the previous year with 14, finished with 12 The Toronto Toros has become the Birmingham Bulls, the Cleveland Crusaders moved to Minnesota to replace the Fighting Saints franchise that folded mid-season the year before (the new Saints franchise would also fold mid-season in 1976-77), but for the most part, the league was as stable as it had been in its short run.

The teams to beat remained the Houston Aeros, Winnipeg Jets, Quebec Nordiques and New England Whalers. But a new player emerged in the Cincinnati Stingers. They also became a very quick bitter rival for the Racers. Less than 120 miles of I-74 separated the two towns, and the hockey animosities were never greater than in 1976-77.

The Racers had made the postseason the year before with a hard-work, lunchpail attitude, good defense and a lot of balance. It carried them again in 1977, as they finished with a 36-37-8 record -- their best in franchise history -- but finished third in the East, behind Quebec and Cincinnati.

The Racers' leading scorer was a defenseman -- Darryl Maggs had just 16 goals, but 55 assists. There was but one 30-goal scorer -- Blair MacDonald. But a ton of 20-goal scorers provided depth. Gene Peacocsh came over from Edmonton early in the year and tallied 22. Rene LeClerc and Reggie Thomas both scored 25. Fan favorite Hugh Harris was a 21-goal scorer. And Rosie Paiment, who had come over from New England early in the year, tallied 23 between the two teams. There was a good mix of balance and veteran leadership, with guys like Al Karlander, Bryon Baltimore, Pat Stapleton and Ken Block holding things down. And the goaltending trio of Jim Park, Andy Brown and Michel Dion -- a group bolstered by the mid-season acquisition of Paul Hoganson -- had been the WHA's best the year before. Dion and Park shared most of the work this season.

And, as fortune would have it, the Racers met the Cincinnati Stingers in the opening round. Cincinnati had finished just four points ahead of the Racers in the standings, but the Stingers were supposed to be the much stronger team. Their roster featured two 50-goal scorers -- Rich Leduc and Blaine Stoughton -- and 40-goal scorers Dennis Sobchuk and Rick Dudley. They were the second-highest scoring team in the WHA, and the Racers weren't supposed to be able to hang with them.

There's a belief that a series is rarely won in Game 1.

Just ask the Boston Bruins after Petr Klima stunned them in triple OT in 1990. Or the Oakland A's after they gave up game-winning homers to Kirk Gibson and Eric Davis in Game 1s to set the tone for back-to-back World Series defeats.

And just like the Bruins and A's in those later series, the Stingers would be favorites in 1977.

Racers coach Jacques Demers called for good goaltending and a tight-checking game. The Stingers had won four of five games in Riverfront Coliseum, nearly all by lopsided scorers.

But while the Stingers had a ton of talent, the Racers had some veteran guile.

Saturday night, April 9, 1977, the series began. 12,429 filed into Riverfront Coliseum not realizing they were about to witness WHA history.

Paul Hoganson took the net for the Racers against his old team -- Demers had determined he'd play both of his top goalies, and give Michel Dion the start in Game 2. Normand LaPointe tended net for the Stingers. The puck dropped at 8:05 p.m. in Cincinnati. Demers had decided to go with Brian McDonald-Gene Peacosh-Rene LeClerc to provide a two-way game against Cincinnati's top line centered by Leduc.

Yet, Leduc scored the game's first goal, assisted by Dudley and Stoughton on the power play, just 4:58 in. Mark Lomenda answered for the Racers at 11:05, a rebound goal on a power play. After 20 minutes, it was 1-1.

Second verse? Same as the first. Leduc made it 2-1, Lomenda tied it half a period later, converting a pass from Brian McDonald. Both goals were at even strength this time.

Just a typical close-checking playoff hockey game. Animosities broke out five minutes into the third when Bryon Baltimore and Bryan Maxwell dropped the gloves. Lomenda and Leduc -- the two goal scorers to that point -- both got misconducts in the altercation.

They'd both be out of the box by the time anything happened, but they wouldn't be in on the plays.

The Stingers sent the Riverfront Coliseum crowd into delirium with just 2:39 left in the game, when Pierre Roy fired from the point. Claude Larose tipped it over Hoganson and gave the Stingers a 3-2 edge. The Stingers had been swarming -- doubling up the Racers in shots in the period -- and the fans were expecting to go home happy.

But things changed quickly. Protecting a lead, the Stingers' youth showed. They got caught up-ice. Michel Parizeau and Reggie Thomas broke out of the zone with a 2-on-1. Parizeau fed Thomas in the right circle, who fired a shot that tied the game with just 1:04 left.

The celebrating Cincinnati fans were suddenly stunned -- and settling in for overtime.

Little did they know how much overtime.

The first sudden death period came and went with no scoring. Each team had a power play, but couldn't take advantage. Each team got eight shots, nothing. At that point, it became the longest game in WHA history -- none had gone to a second overtime before.

As the game went deeper, things looked more in the Stingers' favor since they had younger legs. Or so was the conventional wisdom.

Both teams got more shots on net, but Hoganson and Lapointe stopped them all. Cincinnati had a great chance late in the second OT when Hoganson's glove snared a close-in shot by Larose.

100 minutes of hockey. 40 minutes of scoreless OT. No decision yet.

On into the night they went. It was past 1 a.m. as the puck dropped for the sixth period of the night. Few fans were left in the house.

With the goaltenders dominating and both teams playing a tight-checking game, there had to be a fortunate bounce, a good carom, something.

Something. Gene Peacosh got the puck out of his zone and started the breakout by getting the puck ahead to linemate Brian McDonald, who broke into the zone and left a drop pass for Mark Lomenda left of the slot.

Lomenda -- seeking a hat trick -- fired a shot at LaPointe. He missed the net. But it hit the back boards and came off at a weird angle. LaPointe -- who was  tried to get the puck out of harm's way and pushed it to his left -- the opposite side of where he was squared up to cut down Lomenda's angle.

The puck went right to Gene Peacosh with lots of open twine to shoot at.

He didn't miss.

Suddenly, with one great bounce and a great finish, Gene Peacosh had cemented himself in WHA and Racers lore by ending the longest hockey game in WHA history. After 108 minutes and 40 seconds, the Racers had a 4-3 victory.

The game finished at 1:16 a.m. -- more than five hours after the puck dropped. 

Peacosh called it his biggest thrill in hockey. Demers called it the best WHA game he'd ever seen. Brian McDonald, who had the second assist on Peacosh's goal, said "the old men outlasted the young lions."

Hoganson had stopped 56 shots in the win -- 22 in overtime. LaPointe turned aside 48 of the 52 shots he faced.

The atmosphere on the bus was one of confidence -- the Racers headed home knowing they had the series in hand. They took a commanding lead two nights later, beating the Stingers 7-2, scoring the first five goals of the night. Game 3 was another 5-3 victory, and in Game 4, Michel Dion made 25 saves in front of a raucous sellout crowd at Market Square Arena in the high point for the Racers franchise. Reggie Thomas, Brian McDonald and Al Karlander scored goals and the Racers never trailed in a brilliant victory.

The Racers advanced to the WHA Eastern Division final series against Quebec, where they would fall in five games. They lost Game 3 in OT, and Paul Hoganson gave the local fans a thrill by shutting out the Nordiques in Game 4 in what would become the Racers' last playoff game at MSA. But Quebec won two of the three games in Le Colise by 8-3 scores, and the Nordiques would go on to beat the Winnipeg Jets to win their only AVCO Cup in history.

It would be a last hurrah for the Racers. That off-season, the team was sold to Canadian businessman Nelson Skalbania, they lost a lot of key players -- many of them to Cincinnati, where Demers also headed down I-74 to coach the Stingers. Pat Stapleton, Hugh Harris, Bryan Coates, Bryon Baltimore, Darryl Maggs, Reggie Thomas, Paul Hoganson and Michel Dion would all suit up for the Stingers the next season. The Racers would finish last in an eight-team league, and then Skalbania folded the team after 25 games the next fall.

But the glory days of the Racers -- the two-year run from 1975-77 when they had a core Indianapolis embraced and packed Market Square Arena -- is still the most fondly-remembered era of hockey in Indianapolis, and many of those players are well-remembered for their exploits as Racers.

Game boxscore
Game 1: April 9, 1977 at Riverfront Coliseum

Indianapolis Racers    1   1   1   0   0   1  -- 4
Cincinnati Stingers      1   1   1   0   0   0  -- 3
*-longest game in WHA history
First period
CIN-Leduc 1 (Dudley, Stoughton), 4:58 (pp)
IND-Lomenda 1 (Rochon, Paiement), 11:05 (pp)
Penalties: McDonald (I) high-sticking, fighting 2:44; Roy (C) high-sticking, fighting, 2:44; Sicinski (I) hooking 4:03; Stoughton (C) tripping 9:07; Hughes (C) holding 14:52
Second period
CIN-Abgrall 1 (Leduc, Larose), 9:48
IND-Lomenda 2 (McDonald, Peacosh), 18:23
Penalties: none
Third period
CIN-Larose 1 (Roy, Carroll), 17:21
IND-Thomas 1 (McDonald, Parizeau), 18:56.
Penalties: McDonald (I) high-sticking 5:00; Maxwell (C) high-sticking, fighting 5:00; Baltimore (I) fighting 5:00; Lomenda (I) misconduct 5:00; Leduc (C) misconduct 5:00.
First overtime
No scoring
Penalties: Leduc (C) hooking 3:09; MacDonald (I) tripping 4:07
Second overtime 
No scoring
Penalties: none
Third overtime
IND-Peacosh 1 (Lomenda, McDonald), 8:40
Penalties: none
Shots on goal: IND 12-10-5-8-12-5—52 (LaPointe 48 saves). CIN 9-15-13-8-11-3—59 (Hoganson 55 saves).
Power play: IND 1-3, CIN 1-2.
Att: 12,429.
Officials: R: Ron Ego. L-Alan Glaspell, Ron Asseltine.

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