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This year the National Hockey League is experiencing its most exciting finish in history. With 3 games to go, the Toronto Maple Leafs hold down first place with 81 points. Chicago is close behind with 78 and the Canadiens of Montreal have one point less.
Detroit has captured the fourth and last playoff position, leaving the New York Rangers and the Boston Bruins more than 20 points away.
In the only NHL action tonight, the Detroit Red Wings will play a crucial game in Black Hawk territory. A loss for the Hawks would drop them into third place behind the Canadiens. The other remaining Chicago games are at Montreal and Boston on Saturday and Sunday night.
To be sure of second place Montreal will have to beat the Maple Leafs on Toronto ice this Wednesday, the Hawks on Saturday and the Rangers at New York on Sunday, the last day of the regular season.
Toronto needs only a win and a tie in its last three games to solidify its first place. With two games left against the Red Wings, the Leafs should not have too much trouble.
Detroit surprised hockey fans this year with its early season winning streak and domination of the NHL leadership. Sparked by the playing of 34-year-old Gordie Howe, young Parker MacDonald and goaltender Terry Sawchuck, the Wings surprised hockey sages who had predicted a fifth-place finish.
Howe now leads the NHL scoring race with 35 goals and 46 assists for 31 points. His lifetime regular season total of 539 goals places him within striking distance of retired Maurice "Rocket" Richard's 544 tallies.
Andy Bathgate of the New York Rangers is far behind Howe with 75 points. Big Frank Mahovlich of the Leafs is third with 73 points, including a league-leading total of 36 goals. Tied with him is Stan Mikita of the Hawks with 31 goals and 41 assists to his credit.
In addition to the Art Ross Trophy awarded to the League's leading scorer, Howe should win the Hart Trophy as the Most Valuable Player and gain the right wing position on the All-Star Team.
Since entering the NHL, the Black Hawks have not won the Prince of Wales Trophy for finishing first. They had their best chance this season when, with about ten games remaining, they held a commanding six point lead over the Canadiens and the Leafs. Bobby Hull stopped scoring. Glenn Hall started letting in goals. The defense became porous. The team fell.
Picked by many to finish on top, the Canadiens were plagued by injuries to goalie Jacques Plante, defensemen Tom Johnson and Lou Fontinato (who is in hospital with a broken neck), and forwards Bernard "Boom Boom" Geoffrion, Dickie Moore, and Gilles Tremblay. Rookie defenseman Terry Harper and newly acquired left-winger Bill McCreary will prove valuable to the club in the coming Stanley Cup playoffs.
If looks like a Toronto, Montreal, Chicago, Detroit finish with New York and Boston out of the playoffs, when the NHL winds up its season on Sunday, March 24.
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