The Stemmer Stems The Playoff Tide

At least three hockey critics have called it “One of the most famous playoff wins in Rangers history.”

The critics include Me — I was there to see it — as well as John Kreiser and Lou Friedman.

That latter pair knew what they were talking about having written a fine book called “New York Rangers — Broadway’s Longest-Running Hit.”

The game also could be headlined, “Pete Stemkowski’s Most Memorable Moment.”

The date was April 29, 1971. It was Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Semifinals between the Blueshirts and the Chicago Blackhawks. Just a few days over being exactly 46 years ago.

The Windy City sextet was a formidable squad from goalie, Tony Esposito, on out to Chicago’s Gold Dust Twins, Bobby Hull and Stan Mikita.

The Rangers were no slouches either. Even though they finished second in the NHL’s Eastern Division behind the defending Cup champion Boston Bruins, the Blueshirts totaled 109 points, two more than the Blackhawks who led the league’s Western Division.

What’s more, New York’s goaltending tandem of Ed Giacomin and Gilles Villemure were co-winners of the Vezina Trophy.

The Rangers lineup was sprinkled with stars including the GAG [Goal A Game] line. The defense wasn’t too shabby either, led by two future Hall of Famer’s, Brad Park and Tim Horton.

And then there was a center — behind Aces Jean Ratelle and Walt Tkaczuk — named Peter Stemkowski.

Canadian professional ice hockey player Pete Stemkowski #21 of the New York Rangers skates on the ice during a home game at Madison Square Garden, New York, 1970s. Stemkowski played for the Rangers from 1971 to 1977. (Photo by Melchior DiGiacomo/Getty Images)
Canadian professional ice hockey player Pete Stemkowski #21 of the New York Rangers skates on the ice during a home game at Madison Square Garden, New York, 1970s. (Photo by Melchior DiGiacomo/Getty Images)

Known as a checking forward, the Stemmer as he was known, finished the season with 16 goals and 29 assists. His goal total was 10 less than Tkaczuk and Ratelle.

But the fun-loving Peter came to New York as a reliable performer with a pedigree.

As a young Turk with the Toronto Maple Leafs, Stemkowski starred for the last Toronto team to win the Stanley Cup. In a dozen games during the 1967 playoffs, the Stemmer compiled a dozen points on five goals and seven assists.

Skating for the Rangers in the 1971 playoffs, Stemmer could not match the points quantity of his Cup-winning year. But the quality emerged above all in that fateful game with Chicago.

Sitting in The Garden press box for that game, I can almost vividly remember it period-by-period; mostly because of the grand Rangers comeback.

The first period remained a scoreless battle until just after the 10-minute mark when Dennis Hull scored after passes from Stan Mikita and Cliff Koroll.

If that wasn’t bad enough for the Blueshirts, Chicago opened the second period with yet another goal. This time Chico Maki was set up by Pit Martin and Bobby Hull, beating Eddie Giacomin for Chicago’s two-goal lead.

With the sellout Garden crowd chanting for a comeback, the Rangers returned the favor when Ron Gilbert — on passes from Vic Hadfield and Brad Park — put the Blueshirts on the scoreboard.

Still, when the third period started it was still 2-1 for the visitors. But this time the GAG line delivered. Hadfield and Gilbert worked their magic setting up Ratelle at 4:21 and the score remained 2-2 through regulation time, although Dennis Hull almost won it for Chicago on a breakaway with about a minute to go.

This would mark the third sudden death period of the series.

The Blueshirts won the opener 2-1 in the Windy City. Chicago won Game 5, 3-2, to take the series lead.

“Game 6 was do or die for us,” said Stemkowski, who over the years has been both a radio and TV analyst for MSG Networks. In a book, “The Game I’ll Never Forget– 100 Hockey Stars’ Stories“- – authored by Chris McDonell, Stemmer recalled his finest moment.

“Both clubs had good chances to score in the first overtime,” Peter observed.

Canadian professional ice hockey player Pete Stemkowski #21 (right) of the New York Rangers checks opponent Dennis Hull #10 of the Chicago Blackhawks as they struggle on the ice during a game at Madison Square Garden, New York, 1970s. Stemkowski played for the Rangers from 1971 to 1977. (Photo by Melchior DiGiacomo/Getty Images)
Canadian professional ice hockey player Pete Stemkowski #21 (right) of the New York Rangers checks opponent Dennis Hull #10 of the Chicago Blackhawks as they struggle on the ice during a game at Madison Square Garden, New York, 1970s. (Photo by Melchior DiGiacomo/Getty Images)

But the first overtime ended in a draw and it became evident that skaters were tiring in the early Spring heat.

Referee Bruce Hood didn’t call a penalty in the opening sudden death, but at 9:28 of the second one, Chicago got a big break when Tim Horton was whistled for tripping.

The Rangers penalty killers blunted Chicago’s power play and neither team scored. After two overtimes, the Rangers had out-shot the visitors, 15-10.

Stemkowski: “By late in the second overtime, both teams were so fatigued they needed oxygen between shifts and at the intermission.”

At one point in the second period, the sell-out crowd gasped collectively when it appeared that Chicago had the winner. Giacomin had to move out of his crease to make a save, but the Blackhawks gained control of the puck. First defenseman Bill White beat Giacomin, but his shot bounced off the goal post. The rebound came to Hawks ace Stan Mikita who, incredibly, hit the other post and watched the puck skim safely out of danger and the Rangers cause was saved once again.

By now fans were getting restless. According to the Daylight Saving Time clocks, they were heading toward midnight but now the Rangers had their chance. With 35 seconds left in the second sudden death, Chicago defenseman Pat Stapleton was whistled for tripping.

That meant that the Rangers would have 85 seconds of power-play time to start the third overtime period.

Rangers Coach Emile [The Cat] Francis hoped to exploit Chicago’s shorthanded situation, but the power play ended without a goal.

However, the Blueshirts had penetrated the Hawks zone giving the visitors little time to regroup as Stapleton emerged from the penalty box.

Meanwhile, Francis had a checking line of Stemkowski, Bruce MacGregor and Ted Irvine on the ice. He augmented the attacking force with one of his best shooting defenseman Tim Horton.

Canadian professional ice hockey player Keith Magnuson (left) of the Chicago Blackhawks checks Pete Stemkowski #21 (center) of the New York Rangers as Chicago's goalie looks on during a game at Madison Square Garden, New York, 1970s. Stemkowski played for the Rangers from 1971 to 1977. (Photo by Melchior DiGiacomo/Getty Images)
Canadian professional ice hockey player Keith Magnuson (left) of the Chicago Blackhawks checks Pete Stemkowski #21 (center) of the New York Rangers as Chicago’s goalie looks on during a game at Madison Square Garden, New York, 1970s. (Photo by Melchior DiGiacomo/Getty Images)

As Stapleton prepared to exit the penalty box, Horton orchestrated yet another Rangers offensive with a dump-in at Esposito in goal. Irvine and Stemmer rushed the net with Irvine taking the first shot at the Chicago goalie. Although Esposito made the save, he could not control the rebound which Stemkowski did. His quick shot crossed the goal line at 1:29 of the third sudden death.

Observing the crowd and listing to the decibel count from my perch in the press box, I could not remember such jubilation and ear-splitting noise.

Or, as Stemkowski later told hockey writer George Vass, “I never scored a goal that felt better. As tired as we were, we went crazy.”

Across the hall in the maudlin visitors dressing room, Mikita was upset at how he had missed what had appeared to be a sure open net goal.

“I should have just slid it in,” Mikita lamented.

The Rangers longest game in 33 years tied the series at three games apiece and that sent me to Chicago for Game 7 on May 2, 1971.

Not surprisingly, old Chicago Stadium had about 20,000 people jammed into its cavernous arena.

Energized with the momentum provided by Stemkowski’s triple overtime goal, the Rangers held a 2-1 lead in the second period but Chicago tied the score and surged ahead on a picture-perfect goal by Bobby Hull.

The Rangers fought valiantly, but Esposito was not to be denied and the Rangers were eliminated in the seventh game.

Francis was in tears as he shook each player’s hand in the dressing room.

Nevertheless, Game 6 was a game that Rangers fans, who were around at the time, will never forget.

Nor would Stemkowski, who would go on to play his best hockey in his career as a Ranger. He topped it off in 1973-74 scoring 25 goals and 45 assists, third-highest on the team, surpassed only by Hall of Famers Gilbert and Park.

Reflecting on the classic triple sudden-death game won by Stemkowski, Emile Francis concluded, “This was our finest hour!”