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The 1977 playoffs: How quickly it all slipped away

In the spring of 1977, the Leafs were a team with some pretty solid pieces—Darryl Sittler, Lanny McDonald and Tiger Williams (or Errol Thompson) were a good line; Borje Salming and Ian Turnbull played a lot of minutes on the blue line, and newcomer Kurt Warner gave them some additional toughness up front.

Importantly, young Mike Palmateer staked his claim to the number one job in goal, and gave the Leafs confidence that they had someone in net who could bail them out when needed.

They had a young, innovative coach in Roger Neilson, who prepared the team thoroughly for every opponent.

They needed all that—and more—when they were about to face the tough Philadelphia Flyers for the third consecutive year in the NHL playoffs.

The Flyers had won the Cup in 1974 and 1975 with a combination of talent, a tight-checking system under Fred Shero—and an intimidating style.

In 1976, the Canadiens ended the Flyer dominance, sweeping Philadelphia in 4 games in the finals. But no one had played more playoff hockey in the previous 3 years than the Flyers, they were still a top team and they were heavily favored to beat Toronto.

When the Leafs walked out of the old Philadelphia Spectrum with two road wins to start the series, Toronto fans were almost afraid to believe what might be possible.

After years of frustration, there was already a sense in Leafland that something could go wrong.

Moments after Game 2 ended, Leaf forward Tiger Williams was interviewed on the Hockey Night in Canada broadcast. He uttered what would become famous words when he was asked if he thought the Flyers could come back. No, he said, because “they’re done like dinner”.

Now, I shuddered when I heard that, not because I didn’t want to believe it, but because I’d always been wary of players saying anything that could be bulletin board material for the opposition.

It was great that the Leafs—at least Tiger—were/was so confident.

But I wondered if it wasn’t a bit premature to call an end to the series.

Game 3 was back in Toronto. As I was working in radio at the time just outside of Toronto, I was often in the press box that season, following the Leafs.

I remember being in the Gardens’ press box that night. The Leafs jumped out to a 2-0 lead, and for all the world looked like a team that could indeed take out the mighty Flyers, Bobby Clarke and all.

I recall being in the media room between the first and second period. Hockey Night host Dave Hodge was interviewing Flyer forward Bill Barber, and Barber looked absolutely stunned at what was going on. The Flyers still had Bernie Parent, Rick MacLeish and toughness (Schultz, Saleski, et al) up and down the line up.

I was convinced, after seeing Barber, that the Leafs were in command. They were in the Flyers’ heads. (As a media guy I was theoretically neutral, but I couldn’t throw almost 20 years of being a Leaf fan out the window, especially against the bully Flyers, who had moved up my ‘hate list’ just behind Montreal and Boston)

In the second period, the Leafs continued to dominate, but couldn’t get that third goal. The Flyers got one and the Leafs—you could just feel it—were suddenly under pressure.

It was 2-2 part-way through the third period, and the Leafs were reeling. But Errol Thompson scored on a turnaround backhand from the slot and the Leafs regained the lead at 3-2.

Then, in the dying seconds, the Flyers, with the extra attacker, buzzed around the Leaf net. I may be confusing events with what occurred in Game 4 two nights later, but I seem to recall Borje Salming trying to clear the puck out of the Toronto zone on a backhand. It was knocked down at the blue line—and ended up in the Leaf net. The Flyers then won it in overtime.

The Leafs fought hard again in Game 4, and had a 5-4 lead once again in the dying seconds. Again they couldn’t clear the puck and Bobby Clarke and the Flyers tied the score. (Clarke, in those days, may have been the most dangerous guy in hockey late in games. He was so driven, so determined, and would score or set up key goals time and again.)

I knew right then the Leafs were done—like dinner.

The Flyers won in overtime again, and went on to win the series in 6 games.

I’ve always felt that if the Leafs had just managed to get that third goal when it was 2-0 in Game 3, they would have won the series. The Flyers were primed to be beaten. But when the Flyers saw the opportunity, they responded and the Leafs just couldn’t quite close the deal.

The Leafs could not have handled Montreal that season in a playoff series anyway, but beating the Flyers would have been something to remember.


  1. This is the series I have been reminded of this week after the loss in Boston. In game 4, the Leafs actually lead 5-2 with 8 mins left and Dornhoefer and Lonsberry had both been thrown out of the game. The Flyers tied it with a couple minutes left and won a fairly long overtime. Again the experienced, bully team came through the break the Leafs. Randy Carlyle was a rookie defensemen on those Leafs and I wonder if he remembers it too.

    1. I remember that end of Games 3 and 4 in that '77 Flyer series quite well, also, Bryan. I was at the Gardens those nights. Both games we had a lead in the final seconds, and Salming (on at least one occasion) couldn't lift the puck high enough out of the zone to clear and the Flyers tied it and won in overtime.....tough losses, crushing.

      You're absolutely right, Carlyle was an remerging young defenseman for us at the time...but traded to the Pens, right, after the '78 season??