The passing of Greg Polis this weekend brought to mind his goal that kept the Penguins alive in the 1972 playoff hunt.
Polis was Pittsburgh’s first draft pick in 1970. The left winger was a solid goal-scorer for the Penguins until he was traded to St. Louis Jan. 17, 1974, along with Bryan Watson and a second-round pick for Ab DeMarco, Steve Durbano and Bob Kelly. He was selected to the All-Star Game in 1971, ’72 and ’73, and was the MVP of the 1973 game.
Going into the last weekend of the 1971-72 season, St. Louis, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh were fighting for the last two playoff spots. The Blues had clinched a berth, but could be caught for third if either the Penguins or Flyers swept the weekend. The Flyers led the Penguins by two points, but they would meet at the Spectrum on Saturday night, April 1. If Philadelphia won, they would clinch the last playoff spot. A Pittsburgh win would mean the Penguins would control their own fate Sunday night. And if the two teams tied, the Penguins would have to beat St. Louis at the Civic Arena Sunday while the Flyers lost in Buffalo.
Polis was the Penguins’ second-leading goal scorer. His 27 entering the weekend trailed only Jean Pronovost‘s 30.
The Flyers pulled out all the stops for Saturday’s game, which was televised in Pittsburgh. Before the game, they introduced Bruce Gamble, who had been their backup goalie before suffering a heart attack against the Canucks in February. They played their good luck charm, Kate Smith‘s God Bless America.
The Flyers had a 3-1 lead after two periods, behind two goals from Bobby Clarke. 12 seconds into the third, Polis knocked a rebound of a Ken Schinkel shot past Doug Favell. Ross Lonsberry restored the Flyers’ two-goal lead, putting a rebound over Jim Rutherford. Bob Leiter put Pittsburgh back within one by taking a Tim Horton pass and shooting it between Favell’s legs from 35 feet.
With a minute and a half left, Polis got loose for a breakaway, but as he came in on Favell, the puck rolled off his stick. The Penguins pulled Rutherford with a minute left, and Polis tipped in an Eddie Shack slap shot with 46 seconds to go, giving Pittsburgh a 4-4 tie.
“I felt so bad after I missed the breakaway, maybe it was justice that I scored,” Polis said. “I had (Favell) beat. The puck just went off the end of my stick.” On the tying goal, “Syl (Apps) and I were digging for the puck in the corner, and when I saw him get it out to Eddie, I headed for the goal. The puck was going for the center of the net. I tipped it into the corner.”
The goal was the first the Penguins had scored that season with the goalie pulled, and kept their playoff hopes alive.
Sunday night, the Pens gave up an early goal, but then jumped all over the Blues, beating their archrivals, 6-2. (Polis scored a power-play goal in the first period, tipping in an Al McDonough slap shot.) In the middle of the third period, there was suddenly a buzz in the crowd. At the next stoppage, public address announcer Beckley Smith announced the final score from Buffalo: Sabres 3, Flyers 2, setting off a roar. During the stoppage after that, Smith provided the crowd with some play-by-play, describing how Gerry Meehan put a 30-footer by Favell with 4 seconds left to win the game for Buffalo and put the Penguins in the playoffs. The crowd was in high spirits for the rest of the evening.
Polis set career highs that season with 30 goals and 49 points. The 30 goals that he and Pronovost each scored marked the first time any Penguins had reached that plateau.
Unfortunately for Pittsburgh, they met the Blackhawks in the first round. When Horton kicked Pit Martin‘s shot into his own net 12 seconds into overtime of Game 4, Chicago completed a sweep.
After his time with the Blues, Polis played for the Rangers and Capitals before retiring in 1980. In his ten years, he scored 174 goals in 615 games. 88 of those goals were as a Penguin.
He went back to Alberta, where he settled in Prince George and got into the automobile business. He died of cancer Saturday, March 17, 2018. But he had his moments in Pittsburgh, none bigger than the night of April 1, 1972.
(All quotes are from the original newspaper coverage.)