Year of the Cat:
The Jacksonville Jaguars’ Road To The 1979 Stanley Cup Playoffs
By Chris Oakley
Summary: In the first two chapters of this series, we reviewed how the Jacksonville Jaguars overcame a poor start to their 1978-79 NHL season to make themselves into legitimate Stanley Cup contenders and overtake the Philadelphia Flyers to win the Patrick Division championship. In this episode we’ll look on the Jags’ first-round playoff battle against the Vancouver Canucks.
Vancouver head coach Harry Neale wasn’t looking forward to the Canucks’ first-round series with Jacksonville; his club would have to battle not only a hostile crowd and a fired-up Jags team but also the notoriously humid southern Florida climate, which he feared might put a bit of a drain on his own players’ energy going into the first game of the series. And it didn’t help matters any that the Canucks were going into the playoffs with an uninspiring 25-42-13 regular season record, a mark that would have ensured them a last-place finish had they been competing anywhere other than the chronically weak Smythe Division.
Jacksonville Memorial Coliseum was literally standing room only for the first-ever NHL postseason game held south of the Mason-Dixon Line. No less a figure than Vice-President of the United States Walter Mondale would be watching the action from a JMC luxury box seat; Miami Dolphins head coach Don Shula, who nearly seven years earlier had led his team through a historic 17-0 season en route to the Super Bowl, had secured a prime spot behind the Jaguars’ bench. There were even some technicians from NASA’s Cape Canaveral launch complex present at the game; they’d taken time off from their jobs at the Cape so they could see the Jags-Canucks matchup.
In those days, NHL first round playoff series were held under a best-2-of-3 format, which meant that a team only needed two wins to move on to the next round; however, Vancouver was so chronically bad that the series could have been played in a best-99-of-100 format and it wouldn’t have mattered. Canucks starting goaltender Glen Hanlon surrendered four goals in the first nine minutes of the contest and was gone before the end of the first period. His prime backup, Gary Bromley, didn’t have much better luck, coughing up two more tallies to Jacksonville before the halfway point of the second period. Had it not been for a lucky shot by Vancouver left wing Don Lever on a power play late in the second period, the Canucks likely would have lost in a shutout.
As it was, Vancouver dropped the series opener to Jacksonville 9-2; Serge Bernier clinched the Jaguars win and a personal hat trick by notching an empty-net goal in the closing seconds of the third period. When the series moved up to the Pacific Coliseum a few days later for Game 2, the Canucks hoped that home ice advantage would make enough of a difference to allow them to even up the series and send it back to Jacksonville for a third and deciding game.
Before the series was over, Coach Neale and his team would learn the hard way the veracity of the old proverb "Be careful what you wish for"...
The Canucks won Game 2 of their first-round series with the Jags in overtime 5-4, but it was a costly triumph; Vancouver right wing Stan Smyl broke his shooting hand late in the third period while he was trying to get a rebound off the post near the Jacksonville net, and consequently he would be sidelined for the all-important Game 3 back at Jacksonville Memorial Coliseum. Smyl had been one of the best scorers on Frank Neale’s lineup during the regular season; with him out of commission for the finale of the Jags-Canucks series, Vancouver would find containing Jacksonville’s offense that much harder to do. Jaguars center Ken Linseman, who’d been relatively anonymous for most of the regular season but had in the postseason been recognized as one of Jacksonville’s most effective scoring threats, would exploit Smyl’s absence to the fullest.
Tickets for the third and deciding game of the series sold out within less than 90 minutes after the Jacksonville Memorial Coliseum box office opened for business. So many people showed up at the ticket window that the line stretched more than three and a half blocks. The governor of Florida actually postponed a bill signing so that he could attend Game 3; on the University of Florida campus in Tallahassee, a group of students chartered a bus to make the trip to Jacksonville for the final showdown between the Jags and the Canucks.
Vancouver drew first blood in Game 3, scoring a shorthanded goal at the 11:41 mark of the first period while their forwards were trying to kill off a Jacksonville power play. The stands in the Coliseum were so quiet you could have heard a pin drop-- not to mention a few jaws when the Canucks stretched that lead to 2-0 just ninety seconds later. Some in attendance wondered if the clock hadn’t already begun striking midnight for the NHL’s resident Cinderellas.
But Ken Linseman quickly put the wind back in Jacksonville’s sails with a slapshot from the left side of the Vancouver net with just over three minutes remaining in the period; in the period’s closing seconds Denis Potvin tapped home a rebound off the post to tie the game going into the intermission between the first and second periods. During the intermission, Sid Abel told his players that they couldn’t afford any more mental lapses like the ones which had enabled Vancouver to take a 2-0 lead; if such lapses did happen, the Jags’ playoff fun would come to an early and inglorious end...
...something Serge Bernier and his teammates wanted to avoid at all costs. They came out like gangbusters in the early minutes of the second period, jumping out a 4-2 lead on the strength of back-to-back goals by Bernier and by Yves Preston; on the Vancouver bench Canucks coach Harry Neale glared indignantly at the referee, insisting that Bernier’s goal should have been disallowed because Bernier had been offside. The referee, however, told Neale that from his position the goal had looked legitimate; Neale’s protests were disallowed and the game’s momentum began to dramatically shift in favor of Jacksonville for keeps.
Don Lever scored on a Vancouver power play at 10:41 of the second period to cut Jacksonville’s lead to 4-3, but from that point on the Canucks found themselves stymied at every turn in their efforts to get the puck in the net again. Their best shot at tying the game, a 5-on-3 power play with less than five minutes left in the period, was stopped cold when Jaguars goalie Doug Favell turned back four Canucks shots in a row; when the two teams went back to their respective locker rooms for the intermission between the second and third periods, a sense of foreboding gripped Harry Neale and his team.
That foreboding was well-founded; in the third period the Jags’ defense utterly shut down Vancouver’s forward line and Jacksonville’s own forward lines skated circles around the Canucks defense. By the halfway point of the period the Jaguars were ahead 6-3 and it was no longer question of if they would win, but by how much. Ken Linseman answered that question with a screaming empty-netter from center ice that boosted Jacksonville’s lead to 7-3 with three minutes remaining in the third. He’d finish the night with two goals and three assists, a Jacksonville record for most points scored by an individual player in an NHL postseason game that would stand more than fifteen years.
When the final buzzer sounded to signal the end of the game, the Jacksonville Memorial Coliseum crowd burst into a standing ovation you could hear for at least a block and a half. In the Jaguars’ first-ever NHL playoff series, they’d prevailed against everything the Canucks could throw at them. Now it was on to the second round-- and another showdown with their most bitter nemeses from the regular season, the Philadelphia Flyers....
To Be Continued