Thursday, May 07, 2015

The night Peter Zezel crushed Dale Hunter

For the first time in the 1985 playoffs, the Philadelphia Flyers found themselves trailing in a series.

They opened the postseason with six consecutive victories -- wiping out the pesky Rangers in three straight (including two one-goal results) to record their first playoff series triumph since 1981, and then torched the Islanders in the first three meetings of their Patrick Division Final before dispatching them in an efficient five-game rout. It came at the cost of top scorer, Tim Kerr.

However, due to the archaic and non-sensical rules of the time, the Flyers -- who recorded the most points in the NHL with 113, four more than the defending Stanley Cup champion Edmonton Oilers -- had to open the Wales Conference Finals on the road. They played a team, the Quebec Nordiques, who finished second in the Adams Division, a full 22 points behind Philadelphia.

Why? Because the Adams finished with a better overall record against the Patrick in the regular season, and therefore had official bragging rights in a semifinal showdown. *

So, when the two teams who split the season series at 1-1-1 met at Le Colisee in Quebec, two of the better offenses in the NHL played to a taut, deadlocked contest through 60 minutes. The Nords seemed to get their legs and lungs back after an overtime win in a Game 7 at Montreal two days previously, then Future Hall of Fame center and Slovakian politician Peter Stastny handcuffed Pelle Lindbergh with a blistering slapshot from inside the blue line 6:20 into overtime.

Game 2 was a different animal entirely. Before the first goal of the contest, the penalty boxes were tested out seven times, featuring two fights: Rick Tocchet and Pat Price tussled less than a minute in, then the raucous spirit got a hold of both Lindsay Carson and Wilf Paiement at the midway point.

Carson was given an extra roughing call prior to the bout, but the Flyers picked up the first goal of the game anyway thanks to some persistence around Nords goalie Mario Gosselin and Quebec's fumbleitis with the puck. Dave Poulin eventually tallied a short-handed goal at 11:16, but disappeared to the locker room for most of the night with a rib injury.

Craven made it 2-0 early in the second and Ilkka Sinisalo beat Gosselin in the final minute of the frame and Keenan's Kids went to the locker room with an iron-clad 3-0 advantage. They also went to the locker room having seen Ron Sutter pelted with garbage after an accidental high stick during a scrum two minutes before intermission clipped Stastny in the face, clearly drawing blood and the ire of a partisan crowd when no penalty was forthcoming.

By the time J.F. Sauve tallied a power-play goal less than five minutes into the third, the hosts finally decided to mount their charge with 15 shots on goal in the final stanza after only 14 through the first 40 minutes. Philly's neutralizing defense collared the Nords' best offensive threats. Stastny and Michel Goulet were limited to a total of one shot in that time.

But it was future Phantoms head coach Joe Paterson, who recorded his first career playoff goal to make it 4-1 for the visitors exactly seven minutes after Sauve, who essentially netted the clincher. The Flyers clamped down, allowing few quality scoring chances.

That set the stage for the international highlight sensation, which occurred with roughly 30 seconds left in the contest:

From Angelo Cataldi's column in the next day's Inquirer:

"Zezel said he had an inkling that something was going to happen the moment he and Hunter emerged simultaneously from the penalty box 45 seconds before the game's end.

The rink attendants swept up, but the last 29 seconds were played without the panel. 'Hunter likes to do that,' Zezel said. 'He's a good player and he'll do whatever it takes to win..'" 

Zezel and Hunter took coincidental minors (charging and high sticking, respectively) in a brief scrap just over two minutes before, leftovers from the Sutter imbroglio. As soon as both exited the sin bin to resume 5-on-5 action, and the play was purposefully moved behind Lindbergh by Mark Howe in order to waste some time off the clock, they were destined to collide.

Hunter was already a known quantity to Philadelphia, having played in the NHL for the last five years. His very first postseason experience came against the Flyers in a five-game preliminary-round set won by the Orange and Black in April of '81. Though Quebec lost, they went down fighting, and the rookie Hunter finished with five points (3G, 2A) and 32 penalty minutes which included a pair of misconducts.

But Hunter was to be the unwitting victim and the laughingstock of the Delaware Valley, a living punctuation to a series whose physicality was close to reaching a peak, a testament to the emphatic nature of the Flyers' arrival and intent to blow the Nordiques out of the rink even after putting up greater numbers on the scoreboard.

Note: how low the glass around the boards was in that era, and that it was real glass which shattered upon impact rather than plexiglass whose whole pane would have been displaced. Also, the force of the blow was such that people hardly realized it was Hunter's skate -- and not his body -- which ended up splintering that pane.

In addition, take note how relatively harmless such force between two guys under six feet tall and under 200 pounds proved to be. Neither player proceeded at full speed. Hunter shook it off and didn't miss a second, and neither did Zezel. It's hard to fathom such a check between two 21st Century NHLers could cause such little damage with such magnitude.

Finally, the clip is one of somber remembrance for long-time Flyers faithful as Zezel, Lindbergh and McCrimmon have all passed on from this Earthly plane. 

Though it did not occur against the Montreal Canadiens, but against their Gallic counterparts further north and east up Autoroute 40, Zezel's hit was the positive playoff counterpoint to the infamous board-rattling check Habs defenseman Larry Robinson issued against Gary Dornhoefer during the 1976 Stanley Cup Finals.

Dave Schultz punched the lights out of many opponents, but never busted the glass. Neither did Eric Lindros, despite claiming a variety of injuries both dished out and self-inflicted due to his bone-rattling largesse. Ultimately, it was a 20-year-old rookie from Toronto who displayed more passing touch than desire to get dirty in the corners which set the tone for the Flyers' eventual six-game victory.

* - To avoid such confusion, the NHL formally introduced the Presidents' Trophy for the following season. It was awarded to the club which registered the most points in the regular season and assured that team home-ice advantage for all four rounds of the Stanley Cup playoffs.  The Flyers have yet to win that particular hardware, but if it had been handed out, 1975, '80 and '85 would have been the banner years.

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