Year of the
The Jacksonville Jaguars’ Road To The 1979 Stanley Cup Playoffs
By Chris Oakley
Summary: In the first four chapters of this series, we recalled how the Jacksonville Jaguars overcame a poor start to their 1978-79 NHL season to win the Patrick Division championship, defeat the Vancouver Canucks in the first round of the 1979 NHL playoffs and knock their divisional archrivals the Philadelphia Flyers out in the second round of the playoffs. In this installment we’ll look back on the opening of their third-round playoff clash with the New York Rangers.
When Fred Shero’s Rangers took the ice at Jacksonville Memorial Coliseum for Game 1 of their Stanley Cup semifinals showdown with the Jaguars, they were looking to end a Cup championship drought that had at that time been going on for 39 years. The last time the Broadway Blueshirts had taken home the NHL’s most coveted trophy, Franklin D. Roosevelt had been in the White House and most of the players on the 1979 New York and Jacksonville rosters hadn’t even been gleams in the eyes of their parents.
Jacksonville, meanwhile, was looking to extend its Cinderella run all the way to the Stanley Cup finals; after going eleven straight NHL seasons without so much as a first-round appearance, they were in no mood to see their ‘79 postseason end anytime soon. It would be a case of the irresistible force meeting the immovable object, and both teams were bracing themselves for the collision. Sid Abel might have put it best when he told a New York Daily News hockey beat writer on the eve of Game 1: "It’s going to be a war, pure and simple."
Rangers center Phil Esposito was certainly ready for a fight. During the 1978-79 NHL regular season he’d led visiting players in penalty minutes at Jacksonville Memorial Coliseum; two out of every five penalties assessed during Rangers-Jaguars games at Madison Square Garden were called against Esposito, and of those penalties one out of every three was for fighting. Few people doubted this pattern would continue to hold true when Jacksonville and New York met in the NHL playoffs-- in fact, one New York Post sportswriter predicted Esposito would be the first player ejected in the Jaguars-Rangers Cup semifinal series.
Esposito’s teammate, right wing Ron Duguay, was no shrinking violet either. During the third period of the Rangers’ final ’78-‘79 regular season visit to Jacksonville he’d been penalized with a game misconduct and ejected after getting in a particularly nasty brawl with Jags defensemen Ed Rea; off the ice, Duguay had stirred up a lot of controversy in the Jacksonville press with his less-than-flattering observations about the Jaguars in general and goalie Doug Favell in particular.
Then there was New York defenseman Ron Greschner, who’d missed six games in the ’77-‘78 season because of a broken nose sustained in a fight with Serge Bernier. Greschner wanted payback and he wanted it bad. Nor was Bernier the only Jacksonville player Greschner had a beef with; Ken Linseman had also gotten in quite a few donnybrooks with the Rangers defender, and there’d even been a shoving match or two between Greschner and Jags goalie Doug Favell. In short, all the ingredients were in place for a confrontation of epic proportions between New York and Jacksonville; only time could tell whether the series would be the Jaguars’ springboard to the Stanley Cup finals or the moment when the clock at last struck midnight for the NHL’s Cinderellas.
For those who are inclined to believe in omens an ominous portent of what lay in store for Jacksonville in Game 1 came less than half an hour before game time, when the Jaguars team doctor broke the news to Sid Abel that first-string goalie Doug Favell had come down with what appeared to be a major case of stomach flu. Favell had been the spark plug in the Jags’ engine throughout the 1978-79 regular season and the first two rounds of the NHL playoffs; with him out of commission for the opener of the Jaguars-Rangers series, a significant element of the Jacksonville defense would be gone.
Abel therefore had to turn to his backup goalie, Doug Soetaert, to man the barricades while Favell was recuperating. Soetaert had filled in capably for Favell in several games during the ’78-’79 NHL regular season, but this would be his first playoff appearance for the Jaguars and neither he nor the Rangers were entirely sure what to expect when New York tried to score on him.
They wouldn’t have to wait long to find out, however; scarcely two minutes into the first period, a fluke bounce after Esposito cleared a shot out of the Rangers’ blue line caused the puck to whip right past Soetaert’s knee and put Jacksonville down 1-0. The Coliseum crowd fell dead quiet and TV viewers in living rooms and bars throughout the rest of the city stared at their screens in utter disbelief and alarm; even Jaguars fans’ worst-cast scenarios hadn’t foreseen their team falling in a hole to New York so quickly.
That hole got deeper 90 seconds after the Esposito goal; Ron Greschner’s partner on defense, Dave Maloney, blasted a forty-foot slapshot to put the Rangers ahead 2-0. The previously raucous Coliseum suddenly became as quiet as a mausoleum, and for the first time since the 1979 NHL playoffs began Sid Abel’s players were starting to have doubts whether their team could come back to win. By contrast, the Rangers bench was brimming with self-confidence at this point; some of the more optimistic players in Fred Shero’s lineup were even secretly daring to hope for a sweep of Jacksonville.
Ron Duguay poked home a power play shot to expand the Jags’ lead to 3-0 late in the first period, and as the two teams filed into their respective locker rooms for the first intermission there was a subtle but distinct feeling in the crowd that the Rangers held the momentum of the Cup semifinals in the palm of their hand. That feeling was also present among the Jacksonville skaters, and when they came back out to the ice for the start of the second period they did so grimly intent on taking that momentum back. But this would prove to be easier said than done: eight minutes into the second period, Ed Rea had to leave the game with an injured right knee, stripping Jacksonville of one of the most valuable weapons in its scoring arsenal.
Denis Potvin finally got the Jaguars on the board with a brisk shorthanded goal at 11:36 of the second period to cut New York’s lead to 3-1. Serge Bernier then intercepted a Maloney pass intended for Ron Greschner and whizzed the puck over the shoulder of an unsuspecting John Davidson to make the score 3-2; when the buzzer sounded to mark the end of the second period, the Jaguars had gotten some of their swagger back and their fans became hopeful Jacksonville could turn the tide and emerge from the game with a comeback victory for the ages.
But at 6:41 of the third period, that hope was dashed by a power play goal from Rangers defenseman Mike McEwen. New York went on to win 6-2 and take a 1 game-to-0 series lead, putting the burden on the Jags to try and take Game 2 of the series if they didn’t want to risk being swept by the Rangers when the Cup semifinals shifted to Madison Square Garden for Games 3 and 4. This was definitely not how Jacksonville had wanted to start the third round of the 1979 NHL playoffs.
Game 2 of the series saw Doug Soetaert start for Jacksonville in net once again and hellbent on avenging his Game 1 defeat by New York. His teammates shared that sentiment, and came out of the starting gate with a ferocity that one of the Jaguars’ own defensemen referred to as "unreal"1; the Rangers were every bit as intense as they sought to take a 2 games-to-0 lead in the Stanley Cup semifinals. In a hospital room just across town from Jacksonville Memorial Coliseum Doug Favell, who was still laid up from stomach flu, listened to this clash on a radio loaned to him by the hospital staff and tried to will the virus out of his system so that he could return to action for Game 3.
The Rangers and the Jags went through the entire first period in a scoreless tie, frustrating both Sid Abel and Fred Shero. The second period started out much the same way, with neither team able to get a shot into the net despite their best efforts-- a Ron Duguay shot that could have given New York the lead 12:20 into the second period was disallowed by the referees when it was found that the Jacksonville net had been dislodged right before Duguay got the puck.
The scoreless tie was officially broken at 14:37 of the second period when Serge Bernier potted a wrist shot on a Jacksonville power play. Early in the third period, New York tied the game again after Ron Greschner pounced on the rebound of a Dave Maloney slapshot and slid it past Soetaert to give the Rangers their only goal of the game. In the final fifteen minutes of regulation, the Rangers and the Jags both put on a desperate offensive flurry in hopes of ending the game before it went into overtime, but when the buzzer sounded to signal the end of the third period the score was still tied at 1-1.
In the end it came down to Denis Potvin, who intercepted a puck intended for Phil Esposito at 7:14 of the overtime session and raced toward the Rangers net like a runaway train. After his first shot was deflected, Potvin leaped on the rebound and whistled it past the arm of New York goalie Wayne Thomas to clinch a 2-1 OT win for the Jags. With the series tied at one game apiece, the Jaguars headed to Madison Square Garden hoping to attain the series lead with a win in Game 3. Unfortunately for them, those hopes would be sorely disappointed....
To Be Continued
 Quoted from an interview with Jacksonville second-line defenseman Frank Bathe in the New York Post the morning after the game.