The New York Rangers and Los Angeles Kings are set to meet in the Stanley Cup Final starting Wednesday night in Los Angeles.
While the Kings and Rangers are not traditional playoff foes, this is not the first time they have met in the playoffs. In fact, the Rangers and Kings met in the postseason in 1979 and 1981, with some surprising and explosive moments along the way.
In 1979, Hollywood and Broadway met for the first time in the postseason when the Kings and Rangers met each other in the opening round. Back then, the first series was a best-of-three affair.
The Rangers finished the season with 91 points, good for third place in the Patrick Division, while the Kings finished with 80 points, good for third place in the Norris Division. The playoff format was simply No. 1 vs. No. 16, No. 2 vs. No. 15 and so on without regard for division or conference.
As such, the Rangers hosted the Kings in round 1.
The Rangers were coached by Hall of Famer Fred “The Fog” Shero and led by veteran center Phil Esposito as well as goalie John Davidson, who was just returning from injury. They were a mix of established veterans like Esposito, Walt Tkaczuk, Steve Vickers and Anders Hedberg, and some talented youngsters like Ron Duguay, Don Murdoch and Don Maloney.
The Kings were relying on rookie goalie Mario Lessard and the “Triple Crown” Line of Marcel Dionne, Dave Taylor and Charlie Simmer. They also featured a second-line center named Butch Goring, who added 36 goals that season.
The Rangers had an easy time in Game 1, downing the Kings 7-1. The Kings came out strong and dominated the first period, but Davidson played exceptionally well and made 13 saves.
The Rangers led 2-1 on goals by Lucien DeBlois and Mike McEwen, while Simmer scored the only goal for Los Angeles.
Four second-period goals broke the game open for New York. Dave Maloney scored twice for the Rangers while Tkaczuk added a goal and two assists.
“I was surprised the way L.A. came out in the first period and outbumped us and out-hustled us. Davidson saved us till we got going,” Shero told Parton Keese of the New York Times after the game.
“When you can come up with those big saves at the start of a game, it really helps your team,” Davidson told Keese.
Davidson had missed 18 games with a nerve injury to his leg, but returned just in time for the playoffs. His strong play was the key to the Rangers' surprising run to the Stanley Cup Final that year.
Game 2 at the Forum was a goaltending duel. Davidson stopped 35 shots in the game while Lessard made 41 saves for the Kings.
Syl Apps scored on the power play midway through the first period to give the Kings a 1-0 lead. Lessard made that lead hold up until Esposito tied the game one minute and 11 seconds into the third period.
The veteran center was on a new line with Murdoch and rookie Don Maloney. It was dubbed “The Godfather and Two Dons” since it featured the veteran center Esposito and Dons Murdoch and Maloney.
That line struck again in overtime when Esposito scored the game-winner at 6:11. The Rangers outshot the Kings in overtime 8-3, but couldn’t solve Lessard until Esposito finally ended the game.
It was the 52nd playoff goal of Esposito’s Hall of Fame career, but his first and only overtime game-winner.
The Rangers went on a long and fruitful playoff run, reaching the Stanley Cup Final after upsetting the Philadelphia Flyers and New York Islanders—the team with the league’s best record that year.
Davidson, Esposito and Don Maloney were all key contributors, with “JD” playing the best hockey of his life before a knee injury slowed him down in the SCF while Maloney set a rookie record with 20 points in 18 postseason games.
The Kings and Rangers faced off two years later in one of the wildest preliminary-round series ever.
The Kings were the heavy favorites in this one. Under head coach Bob Berry, Los Angeles finished second in the Norris Division with 99 points, just four behind the division-winning Montreal Canadiens.
The Triple Crown Line was still the engine that made the team go and Lessard had the best season of his career in goal, while Jim Rutherford served as his backup.
Rookie defenseman Larry Murphy made a big impact, with 76 points to start his Hall of Fame career. Veterans like Billy Harris, Mike Murphy and Jerry Korab added to the Kings' attack. Los Angeles was without the injured Simmer when the playoffs started.
The Rangers struggled in 1980-81 and finished 25 points behind the Kings in the standings, barely squeaking into the playoffs. Shero was fired as coach early in the season and replaced by Craig Patrick.
Injuries to Davidson forced the Rangers to start the untested Steve Baker in goal. What the Rangers had was a lot of physical players on their roster, with seven players topping 100 penalty minutes on the season.
Patrick realized that guys like Ed Hospodar, Chris Kotsopoulos, Barry Beck and Tom Laidlaw had to be relied upon to slow down Dionne and company by any means necessary.
It worked in Game 1 at the Forum in Los Angeles. Hospodar went after Dionne when the Kings star dared to go in front of the Rangers' net. Hospodar received four minutes in penalties while Dionne got only two, but the message was sent.
Hedberg scored for the Rangers during the four-on-four and New York led 1-0 en route to a 3-1 victory and 1-0 series lead.
Game 2 was the most memorable contest of the series. The Kings won the game 5-4 to even the series 1-1, but the game will be remembered for a bench-clearing brawl at the end of the first period that resulted in 267 penalty minutes and six ejections.
The game was physical from the start, with Duguay and Murphy dropping the gloves early. Beck then knocked the Kings' Rick Chartraw down with one punch, reaching around referee Bryan Lewis and nailing a surprised Chartraw in the eye.
At the end of the first period, both benches emptied as the teams prepared to head to their respective locker rooms. The two teams were milling about and talking trash when somebody finally started shoving and the first punch was thrown.
What followed was surreal.
The ice was littered with sticks and gloves from all 36 players. At times, it resembled a pro wrestling tag team match as two Kings players jumped on top of a Rangers player and the Rangers crashed on top of the Kings to even things up.
The fight went on for more than 10 minutes, with the officials so outnumbered that all they could do was wait for the teams to get too tired to continue brawling. The organist at the Forum played “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?” as the teams continued to trade punches.
It got so bad that two players started throwing punches in the stands.
Kings third-string goalie Paul Pageau reached over the boards to restrain a Rangers player who was involved in one of the fights. A few seconds later, Nick Fotiu of the Rangers came charging at Pageau in the first row of the stands.
Security had to separate those two combatants, who were both wearing suits and ties.
“I wish I had been able to control myself,” Hospodar told the New York Times after the game. “Nothing like this had ever happened to me.”
Kings rookie Larry Murphy added, “It will just be hockey from now on. In a tough series like this, everybody just blew up. We were definitely behind the eight ball, and things got out of hand.”
Steve Jacobson of Newsday described the melee as “a low blow for the NHL” while league president John Ziegler told Jacobson, “We’re dealing with human emotions,” when asked about the brawl.
There’s no way Gary Bettman would say that if a similar brawl were to break out in a playoff game today. Of course, bench-clearing brawls are mostly a thing of the past in the NHL and are almost unthinkable in the playoffs.
The Rangers took control of the series after the brawl.
They set a franchise record for goals scored in a playoff contest in Game 3 at Madison Square Garden during a 10-3 romp. Ulf Nilsson and Eddie Johnstone each scored twice while Maloney and Ron Greschner added a goal and three assists apiece.
In Game 4, the Rangers outshot the Kings 48-27, but Los Angeles was stubborn and kept things close because of Lessard’s strong play. The Rangers took the lead three times only to have the Kings tie the game each time.
In the third period, however, goals by Laidlaw, Hedberg and Duguay put the Rangers ahead to stay and gave them a 6-3 win to eliminate Los Angeles in four games.
It’s been 33 years since the Kings and Rangers have met in the playoffs. While it’s highly unlikely we’ll see the same kind of fireworks we did in 1981, this series promises to be more historic and memorable than the previous two, as the winner will raise the Stanley Cup.
Quotes courtesy of The New York Times archives unless otherwise noted.