by George Grimm
During the Emile Francis era, the New York Rangers always took great pride in their penalty killing. They practiced it repeatedly throughout the season and it paid off very well for them in the ‘Win’ column. In fact during the years when those Ranger teams really hit their stride from 1968 to 1973 their winning percentage as well as their penalty killing percentage were always among the top four in the league.
All of the hard work and practicing came together on the night of January 19th 1972 in the midst of a six game road trip when the Rangers stopped by the Los Angeles Forum to meet the Kings. At the mid-point of the season, the two clubs were heading in different directions. The Rangers were in second place in the NHL’s Eastern Division two points behind the Bruins while the Kings were dead last in the West, six points out of a playoff spot and had not won in their last seven games.
At the 10:47 mark of the scoreless first period Vic Hadfield was called for a holding penalty and Emile Francis sent the quartet of Walt Tkaczuk, Billy Fairbairn, Brad Park and Dale Rolfe out to kill the Kings two-minute advantage. What followed was a textbook clinic in penalty killing that had rarely been seen in the NHL before or since.
The Kings initially controlled the puck and got off a weak shot, but the Rangers immediately gained possession of the puck and played keep-away for the next minute and a half. They made no attempt to take it into the Kings zone, passing the puck around among themselves. Even with the extra skater, the Kings could not intercept or even deflect the puck. Finally, after about 90 seconds, one of the Kings did manage to intercept a pass but the Rangers got the puck right back and kept it until the penalty was over. It was estimated at the time that the Rangers controlled the puck for all but 10 seconds of the two minute penalty.
The Blueshirts’ almost-flawless penalty killing even drew applause from the less-than-capacity crowd of 7,814 Kings’ fans in Jack Kent Cooke’s Fabulous Forum that evening.
Fairbairn later scored a pair of goals and Hadfield, Pete Stemkowski and Bruce MacGregor added three more and the Rangers left town with a 5-1 victory.
Walt Tkaczuk: “It was incredible. We got the puck back to Brad Park and Dale Rolfe and they were both good skaters and smart players of course, and they got the puck and sort of drew the Kings towards them instead of just shooting it down the ice. They passed it back and forth and we kind of came in but we didn’t come in too deep and Brad or Dale would pass it up to Billy and myself and we would skate up to the Kings defense and they would kind of back up towards their net and we’d cross the blue line and instead of going all the way in we would then just turn around and go back to center ice. Our defense would stay back and then there was a big gap between their forwards and our defense and it went on and on. I felt embarrassed. I felt so bad, like ‘what’s going on here?’ Everybody on the ice as far as the Rangers were concerned knew exactly what we were doing. and we just kept that gap between their forwards and our defense wide enough so that we had room to maneuver and we just didn’t give the puck back to them until I think the last five or ten seconds of the penalty. It was just a combination of the defense, Brad Park and Dale Rolfe and Billy Fairbairn and myself keeping that gap wide enough so that there was room for us to play.
“I’ve never seen anything like it” Emile Francis later told reporters. “Neither have I, in all the years I’ve been watching hockey” added broadcaster Bill ‘The Big Whistle’ Chadwick. “The last group I saw that could do a thing like that was Neil and Mac Colville and Alex Shibicky,” Chadwick continued. “They scored more goals shorthanded then they gave up.” The Colville’s?” said Francis, “that was long before my time”. “Don’t believe him,” Chadwick laughed.
Walt Tkaczuk: “What we did when we killed penalties in New York through the early years if we had the puck we tried not to just throw it away. We tried to keep control of it as long as we could and then when we saw that we were in danger of causing a problem in our own zone we would throw it down to the other end.”
The Blueshirts finished the 1971-72 season with the league’s second highest winning percentage of .661. And thanks to the work of players like Tkaczuk, Fairbairn, Park and Rolfe they wound up with an 84.40 penalty killing percentage, second only to Chicago’s 85.42.