Offer this ending to any reputable movie scriptwriter and he would be perfectly justified if he punched you in the mouth: the sixth game of the most intriguing Stanley Cup hockey series in a decade is in its second overtime period. Flick goes the stick of Jean Beliveau, captain of the Montreal Canadiens and one of their last links with the famous teams of Rocket Richard and Doug Harvey. Zap goes the puck over the shoulder of Gerry Cheevers, goaltender of the Boston Bruins. Montreal wins the series; Beliveau, the idol of French Canada, moves a little bit nearer actual sainthood.
That is, of course, too pat to be believed, and of course that is exactly what happened at a quarter past midnight last Thursday in the Boston Garden. And the best thing about Beliveau is that he is in fact a paragon. Gentlemanly on the ice and off it, a miracle of modesty, a dutiful husband and a man whose loyalty to his team and its owners is unshakable, he has all the old-fashioned virtues.
As Beliveau demonstrated pretty clearly in the Boston series, he is the best hockey center who ever lived. Others have outscored him, others have looked flashier on the ice, but none has had his ability to be in the right place at the right time so consistently or to pass the puck with his remarkable accuracy.
Beliveau and his swift but light-hitting teammates were ideal foils to the pugnacious Bruins. It was a case of the saints against the sinners, and this was a bad April for sinners, starting way back on the 10th when the Canadiens began a two-game home sweep. The Bruins had the notion they had outplayed Montreal, and so they had, except on the scoreboard. When the Bruins in turn swept the next two games, in Boston, they honestly believed they would bring the Hub its first Stanley Cup championship since 1941.
Through the first four games the Bruins had sought to intimidate the Canadiens, some of whom would rather skate than fight. The trouble was, the Canadiens kept bouncing right back. As the series resumed in the Forum on Tuesday, Boston's Derek Sanderson was out of action with a charley horse, and Rogatien Vachon was in the Montreal goal again for the injured Lorne (Gump) Worsley. The Canadiens jumped to a 1-0 lead late in the first period and expanded it to 3-0 early in the second. But the Bruins came charging back, and before the period was over they had fired a record 26 shots on Vachon. Some teams do not get 26 shots in an entire game—indeed, Montreal was to manage but 25 in this one—but the Bruins swept through the Canadiens as if they were working a 20-minute power play. Of Boston's 26 shots, however, only two—both by Ken Hodge—got past Vachon. Chunky and sideburned, Vachon had been shaky during the regular season—so much so that he almost wound up in Houston—but, under heavy playoff pressure, he was both very good and very lucky. This was never more evident than in Vachon's confrontation with Phil Esposito, the record-setting point champion of the regular season. Esposito was getting more chances to score than one has in a pregame warmup. Blanked in the first two games in Montreal, he had come back with two goals and three assists in a Boston win, but now whatever eyes his stick had had were fogging up again. His futility reached a peak during that wild second period, in which he had six shots on goal and did not cash in a single one. "He had the puck so much I thought he owned it," said Vachon. " 'Every time I looked up, there he was, standing in front of me."
When the game was finally over, the Bruins had outshot Montreal 42-25 on the ice and lost 4-2 on the scoreboard. "In that second period," said Coach Harry Sinden afterward, "we had more chances to score than we did in our 10-0 win over Toronto to open the playoffs." Indeed Boston had—and the question hovering in the smoky air of many a Boston bar was, "What's wrong with Esposito?"
"The guy's choking," said one NHL scout. "What other reason can there be?"
"How can you say that?" said another scout. "How many goals did he get in the regular season—49? Are you going to tell me none of those goals came in big games? They play big games in the regular season too, you know."
"Yeah, but these are the playoffs."
From the seats it looked as if Esposito was trying to cut things too fine, that he was playing for the perfect shot instead of shooting on instinct. He was like the shortstop who comes up with a hard-hit grounder and takes an extra split second to make a perfect throw to first base—only to miss the runner by half a step.
"Look," Esposito said after the fifth game. "I don't want to downgrade Vachon. He was great tonight. But half the time I was just standing there in front of him. All I had to do was shoot. So what do I do? Fire wide or straight into his pads, that's what. I wish I knew what's wrong."
So the series moved back to the Boston Garden, where Montreal had not won all year and where the Bruins had not lost a game since Christmas. With their back to its graffiti-covered walls, the Bruins took a 1-0 lead within the first three minutes when Esposito fed a soft pass from behind the net to Ron Murphy, who put an even softer shot past Vachon, who was clearly expecting a scorcher. The lead stood up during the rest of a thrilling period. The Bruins picked up momentum in the second period, in which they outshot Montreal 22-8—but halfway through it came the turning point of the game. At 9:21 John Ferguson was sent off for elbowing, and 36 seconds later Montreal Coach Claude Ruel drew a bench penalty for directing language no saint should use at Referee Art Skov. This left Boston with a two-man advantage for a minute and 24 seconds and a chance to get a commanding lead. But the Canadiens were never better. Vachon, diving, sprawling and kicking out some unbelievable shots, simply would not let the Bruins in. In front of him the Montreal penalty killers—led by Jacques Laperriere and Ted Harris—were magnificent. When both penalties had been served, the Canadiens still trailed by that one puny goal.
Early in the third period Boston's Don Awrey was sent off for charging. Beliveau won the face-off and sent the puck to Serge Savard at the right point. Savard wound up and fired a 40-footer that struck the ice and skipped past Cheevers. And so for the third time in the series Montreal had come from behind to tie. At the other end, Vachon was unbeatable. At 7:20 he deflected a shot from Fred Stanfield wide of Johnny Bucyk, who was on the Montreal doorstep. At 10:30 he stopped Sanderson—not wholly recovered from his injury—in close. With 1:18 remaining, Dick Duff could not handle a pass at the Boston goal mouth which might have been converted, and then back went the Bruins at Vachon, who stopped a thrust by Bobby Orr. With three seconds left Laperriere made a beautiful play, knocking down Orr's slap shot from 30 feet.
The game proceeded into overtime, and, even though the Bruins had not beaten Montreal in overtime in 23 years, they had not lost their verve. Heaven knows they had chances to score; at one point Esposito, alone at the right post, took a pass from Orr and shot wide. At mid-period Vachon stopped successive shots by Orr, then smothered a rebound by John McKenzie. The Canadiens were reeling, but Hodge and Esposito rounded out the period by missing with shots from 15 feet.
Second overtime. The teams were tired, as were the 15,000 fans. Hodge missed the net. Ted Green missed the net. A shot by Esposito grazed a goalpost. After four minutes Hodge and Murphy messed up a two-on-one break, and three minutes later Vachon made a rather miraculous stop on Ed Westfall.
Then Beliveau got his chance. Boston's Awrey broke out of his own end and aimed a pass at Murphy, who was starting up the left side. Little Claude Provost, another old Hab who had been nothing but poison for Boston, intercepted for Montreal, and the teams wheeled back into the Bruins' zone. Provost, with John Ferguson to his right and Beliveau to his left, faced Ted Green. He passed to Beliveau at the rim of the face-off circle.
"I gave Claude a little yell and he gave me the puck," said Beliveau. "I saw a lot of net over the left shoulder. It was a wrist shot. Twenty feet. I shot and hoped."
"As soon as the puck hit Beliveau's stick it was gone," said Cheevers. "By the time I got organized the puck was going over my shoulder and into the net."
The red light stayed on. Cheevers slammed his stick into the boards. Hodge swung with both hands and cracked his over the crossbar. Awrey, his arms covering his head, went face down on the ice in front of the net. Claude Ruel picked up Cheevers' stick and waddled from player to player, banging them on the pads in a mood of total joy, for this was his first Canadien team and the year had not been easy.
Later, much later, Sanderson sat alone in the Boston dressing room. "How do you explain it?" he said. "They don't have the team, the defense, the talent or the guts. But they get the goals."
In his bitterness Sanderson was being decidedly unfair to the Canadiens, who did have a touch of luck here and there—champions usually do—but any team that wins three games in overtime when there are three to be won is a very considerable team. And it would be unwise of the Bruins to dwell too lovingly on their mighty rushes and many shots. The Canadiens simply proved that they could win even with the Bruins draped all over them.
Certainly the Bruins could take pride in having pressed the Canadiens as hard as they did. Certainly fans everywhere could be thankful to Boston for ushering in what appears likely to be a marvelous age of struggle between the Bruins and the Canadiens. But Montreal still reigns and Beliveau endures. "We are always lucky," he said, "in the play-offs."