TORONTO (June 7) — Have you noticed that when something whacky happens in the Stanley Cup playoffs, the Montreal Canadiens often wade triumphantly through the muck? Or, much more impressively than anticipated?
It could be materializing again this spring with a club that many considered the weakest of the 16 playoff qualifiers from the regular season. Since falling behind the Toronto Maple Leafs, 3–1, in the opening round — and appearing somnolent in a 4–0 loss at home — the Canadiens have reeled off six consecutive wins. Most of them rather convincingly. If they defeat the Winnipeg Jets again tonight at the Bell Centre*, the Habs will soar to the North Division title and into the Stanley Cup semifinals. It will mark Montreal’s first best–of–seven series sweep since eliminating Tampa Bay in the opening round of the 2014 Cup tournament. And, we could be witnessing, by my count, the fourth “out–of–nowhere” uprising in half–a–century by the National Hockey League’s most–decorated team.
* Montreal completed the sweep, winning in overtime, and will play the winner of the Vegas–Colorado series in the semifinals.
Fans of the Maple Leafs can justifiably wonder why such a fate never graces their club. On the few occasions, since 1967, in which the Leafs have enjoyed playoff prosperity — 1978, 1993, 1994, 1999, 2002 — everything has been exhaustively earned. Montreal, on the other hand, seems destined to wade through playoff happenstance. It began in the spring of 1971, then recurred in 1986 and 1993. Stanley Cup victories that were entirely unexpected.
All three of them during Toronto’s now 54–year Cup famine.
Whereas Stanley Cup–caliber goaltending has caused despair here in Toronto, it has adorned and embellished the Canadiens… often without notice. It could be happening again this spring with Carey Price.
Here are the past examples I have logged:
1971: This unexpected championship launched a Hall–of–Fame career and one of the most–recognizable figures, to this day, in the NHL. That person later became president of the Maple Leafs. Fifty years ago this spring, Ken Dryden upset what is still the greatest team to not win the Stanley Cup. In 1970–71, the Boston Bruins annihilated the NHL record book, compiling the most wins in one season (57); fewest losses (14, tied with two previous clubs); most points (121, still seventh–best, all time) and most goals–scored (399, eclipsed only by the Wayne Gretzky–led Edmonton Oilers). Phil Esposito destroyed the existing record for most goals in one season (76, 18 more than Bobby Hull in 1968–69) and his own mark for most points (152; he had 126 in ’68–69). Bobby Orr broke three of his own records with 37 goals, 102 assists (becoming the first player in triple figures) and 139 points. The Bruins were expected to win — with relative ease — their second consecutive Stanley Cup title.
But, Dryden, a rookie from Cornell University, knocked them out in the first round.
After winning the series opener, 3–1, at Boston Garden, the Bruins began to unravel in Game 2, also at home. A goal and three assists by Orr had Boston in front, 5–1, by 8:41 of the second period. Henri Richard got one back for the visitors before the intermission. Then came the 20–minute session that ultimately propelled the Habs to their surprise Stanley Cup. Montreal victimized veteran Bruins goalie Ed Johnston by a 5–0 count, getting unanswered tallies from Jean Beliveau (at 2:58 and 4:22); Jacques Lemaire (9:59); John Ferguson (the winner at 15:23) and ex–Leaf Frank Mahovlich (18:40). The series went to Game 7, a matinee at Boston Garden. Dryden was incredible, stopping 46 shots in a 4–2 Montreal victory. The Canadiens took out Minnesota in the Cup semifinals then lost the first two games of the championship round, at Chicago Stadium. The Habs also rebounded from a 3–2 series deficit and won the Stanley Cup on the road in Game 7; Dryden making 31 saves in a 3–2 victory.
ROOKIE GOALIE KEN DRYDEN (RIGHT) OUTDUELED ROGIE VACHON (MIDDLE) AND PHIL MYRE FOR THE STARTING JOB AND BACKSTOPPED THE 1970–71 CANADIENS TO A SURPRISE STANLEY CUP.
Montreal, for the record, had finished 24 points behind Boston in the ’70–71 regular season.
1986: Another Montreal rookie in net; another unexpected Stanley Cup and the launch of another Hall–of–Fame career. This time it was Patrick Roy, a fourth–round draft pick (Granby QMJHL) by the Canadiens in 1984, who wrested the No. 1 role from Doug Soetaert and never looked back. Undisputedly the favorite to win a third consecutive NHL title, the 1985–86 Edmonton Oilers provided Montreal its fate by losing to Calgary in the second round of the playoffs; the Flames garnering the upset when Edmonton defenseman Steve Smith banked an outlet pass into his own net off the skate of goalie Grant Fuhr. Good fortune had also smiled on the Habs in the opening round when Philadelphia, second in the NHL with 110 points, fell to the New York Rangers, 32 points inferior.
The hockey Gods, yet again, were in Montreal’s corner.
Roy led the Habs to a three–game sweep of Boston, then a hair’s–width triumph over Hartford in Round 2 — fellow rookie Claude Lemieux eliminating the Whalers in overtime of Game 7 at the Montreal Forum. Roy began to assert himself during a five–game defeat of the Rangers in the semis and hooked up with the Flames for the NHL title; Calgary having survived a seven–game clash with rising star Doug Gilmour and the upstart St. Louis Blues.
After losing the opener, 5–2, at the Saddledome, the Canadiens were in trouble heading into overtime of Game 2. That’s when fate intervened; Montreal prevailing on what is still the fastest winner to be scored in extra time — nine seconds — Brian Skrudland beating Mike Vernon off the opening rush. Stunned, the Flames lost the next three matches in regulation and were eliminated in five. Roy compiled a 15–5 record in the ’86 playoffs with a 1.93 goals–against average and .923 save–percentage. He won the Conn Smythe Trophy as Stanley Cup MVP.
1993: For the love of God, Leafs Nation needs no reminder of this unexpected Montreal championship.
Had Doug Gilmour and the Maple Leafs availed themselves of a 3–2 series lead over Los Angeles in the Stanley Cup semifinals, perhaps Toronto’s title drought, today, would be 28 years, not 54. But, maybe not. Again, something predetermined found itself in Montreal’s favor throughout the ’93 playoffs. The Habs, with Roy now an accomplished veteran, won the required 16 games… but a Cup–record ten of them in overtime. Without sustaining a single loss. Included, were three consecutive extra–time victories in the Stanley Cup final against Wayne Gretzky and the Kings — the first of which proved, undoubtedly, that the Canadiens were guided by an unseen hand.
You may recall the scenario: Los Angeles won the opener, 4–1, in Montreal and led, 2–1, late in regulation of Game 2. Had Gretzky and Co. swept the first two matches on the road, it’s unlikely the Kings would have lost four of the next five. But, the hockey Gods came to the rescue. L.A. defenseman Marty McSorley was penalized for playing with an illegal stick. Montreal, on the powerplay, tied the game when Eric Desjardins beat Kelly Hrudey with 1:13 left on the clock. Deflated, the visitors fell victim to another Desjardins shot at 51 seconds of overtime.
The trend carried over to the Los Angeles Forum — John LeClair winning Games 3 and 4 for the Habs in extra time. A 4–1 regulation triumph cemented the rather shocking Cup victory; Montreal’s 24th and most–recent.
Maple Leaf supporters still swear that cruel fate in the semifinals helped the Canadiens. That, of course, being the missed (or overlooked) high stick by Gretzky on Gilmour in overtime of Game 6 at Los Angeles; the Leafs needing a goal to eliminate the Kings and move on against Montreal. Though cut and bleeding, Gilmour could not convince referee Kerry Fraser that Gretzky be banished with a major penalty. Instead, No. 99 stuck around; scored the overtime winner on Felix Potvin, then pored in three goals in a Game 7 triumph at Maple Leaf Gardens.
DESPITE A BLOODY CHIN, DOUG GILMOUR COULD NOT CONVINCE KERRY FRASER TO TOSS WAYNE GRETZKY OUT OF GAME 6 IN 1993. AS SUCH, THE LEAFS SUFFERED; THE HABS PROSPERED.
OTHER LEAFS—HABS EXAMPLES
APR. 21, 1979 at Maple Leaf Gardens: The hands of the Hockey God reached out and choked the Blue and White. It was Game 3 of the Toronto–Montreal Stanley Cup quarterfinal. Leafs defenseman Ian Turnbull cleanly beat Ken Dryden in the first overtime period but rang his low shot directly off the right goalpost. At 5:25 of the second extra period, one of Montreal’s “scrubs” fell to the ice while breaking in on the Leafs net. As he slid on his belly, the unheralded Cam Connor (nine career NHL goals) swiped the puck over a sprawled Mike Palmateer.
APR. 22, 1979 at Maple Leaf Gardens: The very next night — three calendar years after Darryl Sittler scored a Cup–record–tying five goals against Philadelphia — cruel fate struck again. Penalties in playoff overtime, back then, were almost never assessed. In this instance, and after the Leafs had roared back to erase a 4–0 Montreal lead on goals by Rocky Saganiuk, Sittler, Walt McKechnie and Dan Maloney, referee Bob Myers handed Dave (Tiger) Williams a rather marginal high–sticking minor at 2:38 of the the first extra frame. Larry Robinson, whom the Tiger had apparently strafed, slapped the game and series–winning puck past Paul Harrison, on the powerplay, at 4:14. So enraged was Williams at Myers that he had to be tackled by Maloney, and lectured by Robinson. The Canadiens went on to win their fourth consecutive NHL title, defeating the Rangers in the Stanley Cup final.
The comeback this spring by the Habs — or collapse by the Leafs, depending on your preference — showed, yet again, that external forces, if they exist, are forever in favor of the Bleu, Blanc et Rouge. Toronto zealots likely ask why such destiny routinely empowers Montreal at the most–opportune juncture. Or, if the “all knowing” will, at some point, cross to their side. At the moment, despondent Leaf fans should prepare, emotionally, for the Canadiens to somehow land in another Stanley Cup final. This one, completely out of the blue (and white).