Phil Goyette of the New York Rangers had just scored to tie the fourth game of the Stanley Cup playoffs at 1-1. The Montreal Canadiens held a three-game lead in the best-of-seven series but the bigger, slower Rangers were body checking and harassing Montreal's lithe skaters so well that they seemed to be taking charge of the game. Still not quite convinced that the Rangers' dramatic one-season ascent from last place to the playoffs could really end in a humiliating four-game defeat, the exuberant Madison Square Garden crowd picked up a chant of "We're not dead yet." And when Henri Richard drew a tripping penalty that set up a New York power play the Rangers and their fans both felt very much alive.
Seconds later New York's Harry Howell steered a near-perfect pass toward Donnie Marshall, who was free in front of the net. Montreal Defenseman J. C. Tremblay dived to the ice and broke up a play that might have put his club behind. Another play started as the puck was passed along the boards. Tremblay, smallest defenseman on the Canadiens, elbowed his way between two opponents and took possession. Then he avoided two checks, skated smoothly toward his blue line and lofted the puck the length of the rink to kill the remaining moments in the period and end the Ranger threat.
It was a typical clutch performance by a man who is a typical Montreal Canadien: fairly small but very quick, a brilliant skater and stickhandler, and—most of all—a player who is at his best under the pressures of the Stanley Cup playoffs. Bothered by injuries, Tremblay played poorly in the first half of this season. He had what he considers a "fair last two months." But in the playoffs he has been simply tremendous, stabilizing
the defense and assisting the offense with two important goals. "The money is here, big money," he said when the semifinals were over. "And it seems that I play better when the money is on the line."
The entire Canadien team is playing better than ever now that the big money—$5,250 a man to the Stanley Cup winners—is there to be taken. In that fourth game Montreal ultimately overcame a supreme effort by the Rangers and won in sudden-death overtime 2-1, to complete the sweep.
The Canadiens will take a 10-game winning streak into this week's final series against Chicago or Toronto, and since they are healthy and both their possible foes are pretty well battered, they will probably be favored to capture their third straight cup. The swift and smooth machine that destroyed the Rangers bore no resemblance at all to the crippled and discouraged group that stumbled along in fourth place for most of the year before the playoff money came in sight.
But there is more involved in the Montreal surge than cash. When you are talking in terms of thousands of dollars it may seem superfluous to credit victories to any tradition or mystique—but in Montreal the mystique is not superfluous at all. It is the basis of the club's success. "There is no doubt that this team is very proud," says Jean Béliveau, the captain, who predictably rose to the occasion with two goals and three assists against New York. "We represent all of French Canada, and we know that a lot of people are counting on us. And we are very conscious of the tradition we must keep up. There were some good men here before us, you know."
Twenty years ago Béliveau sat by a radio and listened to the feats of Rocket Richard and Elmer Lach and Toe Blake, who is now the Montreal coach. A decade later kids like Jacques Laperri√®re and Yvan Cournoyer worshiped a hero named Jean Béliveau. Even the English-speaking players who join the club are swept up in the tradition that is passed down to every young hockey player in French Canada, the tradition that only two things in hockey are truly worthwhile—playing for Les Canadiens and winning the Stanley Cup. "I've been telling the younger players," says Béliveau, who is 35, "that they shouldn't miss any chance they have to win the cup. Look at a man like Bill Gadsby, who played 20 years and never was with a cup winner. That's a shame. Nobody should miss the experience of winning it."
Béliveau, a gentle and sensitive man who is undoubtedly the most respected figure in all hockey, is acutely aware of his role as captain. "When I first came up," he says, "Butch Bouchard was captain. Then it was the Rocket, then Doug Harvey and then myself. I'm following some great men and I want to be a service to the team. Being the oldest, I know that all the other players will keep going at top speed as long as they see me doing my best."
All the Canadiens had to go at top speed to beat New York last week; the Rangers played well, and the one-sided result is deceptive. "We won in four straight," said Blake, "but they were four close games that we could have lost. Even when we had them down by three games and scored the first goal in the fourth the Rangers never quit."
For the first two and a half periods of the opening game in Montreal it appeared that the Rangers had their eyes on the big money, too. Rod Gilbert, the team's leading goal-getter, had slumped throughout the second half of the season but he scored two goals to lead the Rangers to a 4-1 advantage. Then, with 10:48 to go, Claude Provost shoved a fluke goal through Ed Giacomin's pads from the side of the net. Only 22 seconds later J. C. Tremblay scored on a long deflected slap shot, and the panic was on. Giacomin was visibly shaken, the Ranger forwards suddenly seemed immobile, and the defensemen offered little resistance to the deluge of Montreal skaters rushing at them. "After Provost's goal we hardly seemed to touch the puck," groaned Coach Emile Francis, who led New York into the playoffs for the first time in five years. "I was wishing I could have called a time-out." The Canadiens wound up with five goals in a nine-minute span and a 6-4 triumph.
It was about as demoralizing a loss as any team could suffer, and Francis had to use all the psychology at his command to keep the Rangers from collapsing completely. Somehow he succeeded, and they were not disgraced in the next two games, which the Canadiens won by 3-1 and 3-2 scores. The Rangers' performance in the final game—they checked more aggressively than they had since their giddy stay in first place last January—gave New York fans much to be proud of, but it also emphasized that, even at their very best, the Rangers were no match for the hot Canadiens.
Stanley Cups are usually won with depth and all-round team play. Clubs like Montreal and Toronto, equipped with three fairly equal lines and uniformly effective checkers, generally fare better than, say, Chicago with its superstars. In last week's other semifinal series, two of the Black Hawk leaders, Bobby Hull and Doug Mohns, were slowed by injuries, and their teammates faltered so badly that they faced possible elimination by an aging and inferior Toronto team that had finished 19 points behind them in the regular season. The Canadiens' destruction of the Rangers was accomplished without going too far into the reserves. The stars got the job done. The Canadiens' big men played superbly while the Rangers' leaders had trouble, and that was all the edge the winners needed.
Béliveau, Henri Richard and John Ferguson led an offense so strong it seemed incredible that, a few months ago, Montreal was the league's weakest-scoring club. "Early in the season our guys couldn't put the puck in the ocean," said Blake. "When you're only scoring one or two goals a game, you just can't afford mistakes. Now we can get four or five in a game, and one fluke goal by the other team won't beat us. That's the big change in this club."
While the forwards showed a new scoring punch and the defensemen overcame the erratic tendencies that hurt them earlier this year, the Canadiens also got superior goaltending from Rogatien Vachon, the 22-year-old rookie who had played only 19 games after being called up from the Houston Apollos to replace the injured Gump Worsley and the ineffective Charlie Hodge. Vachon learned the Montreal attitude toward the playoffs very quickly: "There is a little more tension, sure. But maybe that makes you play better." The Rangers' Francis, a former goalie himself, added, "Vachon has been winning and winning ever since he came up. Now maybe he thinks he'll never get beat. And that's the way a goalie should feel."
Vachon's confidence may have wavered slightly when the Rangers pulled away to their 4-1 lead in the opener. Blake later admitted that he had been waiting for a chance to put in Worsley before Provost's goal touched off the winning rally. Vachon knew that once he sat down he might never get back into the playoffs, but he coolly refused to panic. "There was nothing I could do about the shots that had gone in," he shrugged. "I just figured I'd better stop the rest and hope for the best."
The Rangers were depending heavily on their own goalie, Giacomin, the man most responsible for their good season. But Giacomin, who may have been worn out from the increasing pressure he had faced as the Ranger checking weakened late in the season, had a bad series. There was the nightmarish third period in the first game, and an equally shattering two-goal assault in the first three minutes of the third game. In between there were also some fine saves, but this was not meant to be Giacomin's series. It ended with an embarrassing blunder on the goal Ferguson scored in overtime to clinch the victory. Eddie blocked a hard shot by Claude Larose and thought the puck was cradled between his right arm and his chest. As he moved to his right to drop it clear of trouble, the puck slipped to the ice on the goal line. By the time he saw it, Giacomin was so far out of position that he could only watch as Ferguson took two swipes at the inviting target and finally drove it into the net.
Up front, the Rangers suffered key injuries to Goyette, the club leader in assists, and big Orland Kurtenbach, one of their best checkers. Even at full strength the New York centers would have been unable to skate with Béliveau, Richard and Ralph Backstrom. The Montreal centers controlled the play for most of the series and took part in all but one of the Canadiens' 14 goals. "The centers are the biggest factor in the improvement of their club," Francis said midway in the series. "That's probably true," said Blake. "Especially Richard. He's gotten over all his injuries and now he's really flying."
It became clear early in the series that the Rangers would try to stop Henri with hard body checks. "I don't let that bother me," Richard said. "The checks keep me in the game. I don't mind mixing it up with those big guys." In the last game he even got into a shoving match with the towering Kurtenbach, who is hockey's best fighter. "Well, I wasn't really looking to fight him," Henri smiled later. "But I looked good holding him back, anyway."
"Rugged-checking teams used to bother our fast skaters," said Blake. "But no more. Since we got some big guys ourselves—Ferguson and Terry Harper and Ted Harris—we can hold our own in any brawls." Francis was not fully convinced. "You saw what happened out there," he said. "Some of those guys like Gilles Tremblay and Bobby Rousseau didn't enjoy the hitting one bit. That's why I thought we could beat them. But when we had them hemmed in, they would always slip away." When the Ranger aggressors did manage to catch their foes, they won most of the fights in the series. But the Canadiens won the games, and came out of them without scars. Going into the finals, Toe Blake says his team is "at least as good as the one that won the Stanley Cup last year."