Year of the
The Jacksonville Jaguars’ Road To The 1979 Stanley Cup Playoffs
By Chris Oakley
Summary: In the previous five 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 beat their division rivals the Philadelphia Flyers in the second round to advance to the Stanley Cup semifinals. In this final part of the series, we’ll look back on the end of the Jaguars’ ’79 NHL postseason run and see how the franchise has changed in the thirty years since.
Madison Square Garden was packed to the rooftop when the Jaguars came to the Big Apple for Game 3 of their Stanley Cup semifinal series with the Rangers. After having won the series opener, New York had wound up on the wrong end of an overtime loss in Game 2,and now the Broadway Blueshirts were looking to exact some major payback for that defeat. More important, they were trying to regain the series lead and then finish off Jacksonville so they could advance to the Cup finals to play the winner of the Montreal Canadiens-Boston Bruins semifinal series.1
Phil Esposito was the designated point man in the Rangers’ quest to avenge their Game 2 defeat.2 In several workouts during the days leading up to Game 3 and in his pre-game speech on the night of Game 3 itself, Rangers head coach Fred Shero told Espo that he was entrusting the New York center with the job of igniting the team’s offense in the early minutes of its clash with the Jags.
And Esposito would not disappoint. Scoring two goals himself and assisting on a power play tally by Ron Duguay, the Rangers center lit up his team’s inner drive like it was a Havana cigar. By the end of the first period New York had staked itself to a 4-1 lead, and after that Jacksonville found itself trying to climb out of a deep hole only to find themselves falling further into it; by the halfway point of the second period the Jaguars were trailing 7-2 and Serge Bernier, the glue that normally held the Jags together, had been tossed out of the game after a late hit on Rangers defenseman Carol Vadnais.
With about four and a half minutes left in the third period, the Jaguars pulled their goalie from the ice and went to a six-man lineup in hopes that this might spark a rally. It ended up having precisely the opposite effect; Ron Greschner slammed the door on Jacksonville’s comeback hopes with an empty-net goal at the 15:47 mark of the third period. New York went on to win the game 9-3 and take a 2 games-to-1 series lead, leaving Jaguars fans back in Florida to nervously ponder if their team’s improbable and wonderful NHL postseason run might be finally coming to the end.
But it was in Game 4 that the real foreboding of Cup semifinals defeat began to creep over the Jaguars. The Rangers hung a five-goal shutout on Jacksonville in that match; New York managed more shots on goal in the first period(32) than the Jags could produce throughout the entire game(19). To make matters worse Doug Favell, who’d finally returned to the starting goaltender’s job after missing the first two games of the series and spending most of Game 3 on the bench, muffed an easy save during the second period that could have swung Game 4’s momentum back in Jacksonville’s favor. Whether or not the Jags could have taken the series if they won Game 4 is open to question, but it’s clear that a Game 4 victory would have done wonders for Jacksonville’s self-confidence.
Instead Sid Abel’s players took the ice for Game 5 with the grim air of a condemned prisoner headed for the gas chamber. The verve that had enabled them to get through their previous playoff series with the Canucks and the Flyers was, if not gone altogether, certainly greatly diminished. One Jaguars third-line player was so sure his team would lose that he’d already made plans to clear out his locker as soon as the Jags got home from New York City. But as it turned out, they would have one final taste of glory before they made their playoff exit.
Summoning up a strength born out of desperation, the Jaguars guarded their net in the early minutes of Game 5 like it was the main vault at Fort Knox, preserving a scoreless tie throughout the entire first period and the first eight and a half-plus minutes of the second period. At 8:40 of the second period Ken Linseman swiped a clearing pass from New York right winger Steve Vickers and whistled it over the shoulder of Rangers goalie Wayne Thomas for the first tally of the night. Rangers center Ulf Nilsson tied the game with a power play goal at 12:47, and New York and Jacksonville would remain in a 1-1 tie when the buzzer sounded to mark the end of the period.
Game 5’s third period has taken on a nearly mythic quality in the memories of those who were at Madison Square Garden that night. Before all was said and done, the Rangers and Jaguars would amass a combined total of 117 shots on goal in the third period and 36 minutes’ worth of power plays; at least twice each team had an apparent go-ahead goal disallowed because either the net was dislodged or the player taking the shot had been offside. The Rangers’ inability to break the tie had Fred Shero so frustrated that at one point the New York head coach, in full view of TV cameras broadcasting the game to a nationwide audience which included impressionable kids, burst into a tirade including at least five of the seven terms on George Carlin’s famous list of words the FCC wouldn’t let you say on network television.3
As had been the case in so many of the Jags’ previous games both in the regular season and in the playoffs, Denis Potvin would play a key role in deciding the outcome of Game 5. With less than two minutes left in regulation and both the Jaguars and Rangers bracing themselves for a possible overtime, the Jacksonville defenseman pounced on the rebound of a Dave Maloney wrist shot and raced all the way up the ice with it before sliding it through Wayne Thomas’ legs to give the Jags a 2-1 lead. As had been the case with Jacksonville in Game 3, New York pulled their goaltender in favor of an extra skater hoping that this would enable them to revive their offense.
What it actually ended up doing, however, was setting the Rangers up to get burned by an empty-net goal from Ken Linseman with just over one minute remaining in the third period. The Jaguars exited MSG with a 3-1 victory; as they flew home to host the Broadway Blueshirts down at Jacksonville Memorial Coliseum in Game 6, team morale was high and some of the more optimistic players on Sid Abel’s roster were starting to talk about possible lineups for the first game of the Stanley Cup finals. Hotels in Boston, where the first two games of the Cup finals would be held, got a substantial volume of phone calls from Jags fans hoping to come to Boston Garden to see the Jaguars take on the Bruins.
Unfortunately for those fans, Game 6 was precisely the point at which Jacksonville finally ran out of steam for good. Wrung out by the strain of their ferocious battle with the Rangers in Game 5, the Jags had very little left in the tank when it came time to defend their own turn once again. The Rangers jumped out to a 3-0 lead early, extended that lead to 5-0 late in the first period, and by the 5:30 mark of the second period were ahead 6-1; they went to win 8-2 and clinch a slot in the Stanley Cup finals against Boston.
The clock had finally struck midnight for the NHL’s Cinderellas from Florida.
Jacksonville might have been prevented from taking the Stanley Cup home, but the Rangers wouldn’t be skating off with the trophy either; in what some Boston sports fans viewed as karmic compensation for the Red Sox’ late-season collapse in the American League East pennant race during the baseball season the previous year, the Boston Bruins dispatched the Broadway Blueshirts in five games, with Bruins right winger and Cup finals MVP Terry O’Reilly scoring the goal that broke New York’s back midway through the third period of the deciding game. Boston hasn’t won another Stanley Cup since; the Rangers’ Cup drought would go on until 1994, when they beat the Vancouver Canucks in seven games.
Neither Sid Abel nor Serge Bernier ever got their Stanley Cup; injuries forced Bernier’s retirement in 1981, while Abel was fired a year later after Jacksonville missed the NHL playoffs. Denis Potvin, however, did take home the brass ring; waived by the Jaguars after their ’79 Cup semi-finals defeat, he was signed as a free agent by the New York Islander and became an integral part of their early ‘80s Cup dynasty. Ken Linseman was subsequently traded to Boston and was with the Bruins for their 1988 and 1990 Cup finals battles with the Edmonton Oilers; Boston came out on the losing end both times. Doug Favell retired after the 1979-80 NHL season and would later serve as an assistant coach with the Pittsburgh Penguins during their 1991-92 Stanley Cup championship season.
The Jacksonville Jaguars made the playoffs again in the 1979-80 season but didn’t do nearly so well; after narrowly surviving a hard-fought opening round with the Buffalo Sabres, they were eliminated by the Philadelphia Flyers in the second. After that the Jags would have to wait nearly a decade to appear in the postseason again-- and when they finally did return to the playoffs it was only a brief stay, as they were swept in the first round by the Hartford Whalers.
In the late 1990s Jacksonville briefly experimented with an updated version of the old yellow-and-maroon uniforms the team had originally worn in its early years in the NHL. The experiment was quickly abandoned when the revived color scheme provoked a return to all the old jokes about the Jags’ gear and inspired a host of new jokes. The team would stick with its blue and silver color combo until 2004, when white was added to the mix.
Jacksonville finally reached the Cup finals in 2007, barreling their way through the Eastern Conference playoffs under the tutelage of ’79 playoff vet Ed Rea, now the Jags head coach; in a seven-game thriller against the Western Conference champion Anaheim Ducks, they gave a solid accounting of themselves before finally being struck down in overtime in the seventh game courtesy of a goal from Ducks defender and Cup MVP Scott Niedermayer.
The old brick-faced Jacksonville Memorial Coliseum has since been replaced by a glittering high-tech steel and glass palace, but fans of today’s Jaguars can still find echoes of the old days if they look in the right places. One of those places is in the lobby of the Jags’ current home arena, where mounted on the wall under a glass plate is a copy of the Jacksonville Journal front page from the morning after the Jaguars won their 1979 playoff series against Philadelphia.
1 The Bruins-Canadiens ’79 Cup semifinals battle witnessed one of the most stunning and controversial finishes in NHL playoff history when Montreal was slapped with a “too many men on the ice” penalty late in the third period of Game 7; that penalty paved the way for Boston to tie the game in the closing seconds of the third period and win the game in overtime. The Canadiens’ loss in their 1979 playoff series with Boston would later be cited as a key factor in the franchise’s decision to fire head coach Scotty Bowman the following year.
2 In the most literal sense of the word; by the time the Rangers-Jaguars series was over Esposito would be leading New York in goals scored and second on assists.
3 Shero was subsequently fined by the NHL for his outburst.