It was not exactly your classic exit, but then this was not exactly your classic Stanley Cup final. How could it have been? The seventh-place Montreal Canadiens against the sixth-place Calgary Flames? A couple of better-than-average teams that had worked very, very hard to get there, leaving much of themselves behind. So it seemed to make sense for the season to end with the soon-to-be-crowned Stanley Cup champions—Les Canadiens sont l√†! Les Canadiens sont l√†!—running around in a panic for the first time since the start of the playoffs, watching the seconds tick down and their lead dwindle from three goals, to two goals, to one, to...mon Dieu! What a save! Better for the season to end like that, with the MVP of these playoffs, 20-year-old rookie goalie Patrick Roy, dousing the Flames' improbable comeback on Saturday night with one last diving stop in the final 14 seconds. That save preserved a 4-3 victory in Game 5 and gave the Canadiens their 23rd Stanley Cup. By comparison, the New York Yankees have won 22 World Series.
"Patrick's been our stopper all along," said 34-year-old defenseman Larry Robinson, drenched in champagne and hoisting the Cup to his lips for the sixth time in his great career. "I've been wailing seven years for this. You'd have to say that this one is more special than the others since I'm not exactly at the peak of my career."
Oh, but you would never have known it from his play, or from that of Canadiens captain Bob Gainey, 32, who was sitting a few feet away, speaking quietly and with dignity about the years of frustration since the team won four straight Cups in the '70s. Then, absorbing the pandemonium around him, Gainey's face almost imperceptibly brightened. "And we've come out of it again, eh?" he said. "It's just a great feeling to be part of a championship team."
Montreal took control of this series—the first all-Canadian final in 19 years—early in the week, when, after a split in the first two games in Calgary, the venue shifted to the Montreal Forum. The Canadiens' home record up to that point in the playoffs was eight wins and one loss, but that wasn't Calgary's biggest problem. The Flames were not only tired from consecutive seven-game series against Edmonton and St. Louis—Calgary's 22 postseason games established an NHL record—but they were also hurting. Rookie-of-the-Year candidate Gary Suter, the Flames' best defenseman at moving the puck up to the forwards, was out with strained ligaments in his right knee. Center Carey Wilson, a key man at face-offs, was recovering from surgery for a ruptured spleen. Colin Patterson, the type of mucking winger who could cause havoc in the slot, was hospitalized with the flu, and tough guy Nick Fotiu, who had played well and picked up an assist in Game 1, was sidelined with a bruised derriere.
June 1, 1986
Consequently, the Flames came up short on all these elements—breakouts, face-offs, slot-mucking, toughness—in Game 3. After taking a 2-1 first-period lead on power-play goals by Joe Mullen and Joel Otto, Calgary watched in passive horror as the Canadiens, who had averaged less than three goals per 60 minutes in their previous 17 postseason games, exploded for three in 68 seconds. Bobby Smith, Mats Naslund and Gainey all connected in the waning moments of the first period, chasing Calgary goal-tender Mike Vernon. Montreal then returned to the game it knows best—defense—and spent the rest of the evening glomming on to the leg-weary Flames. The final two periods were an endless procession of muffed passes, dump-ins without pursuit and wrestling matches along the boards, as the Canadiens protected a lead that might have stood till next Tuesday for all the pressure that Calgary applied to Roy. "What a terrible game for the fans," said Calgary general manager Cliff Fletcher after Montreal's 5-3 victory. "It sure is different hockey than we play out West."
It was old-fashioned six-team-NHL hockey, minus the superstars of the '50s and '60s—the Howes, Hulls and Richards—who, despite being smothered with bodies, could still bring the fans out of their seats. Montreal's best players were the ones doing the smothering: Gainey and Robinson, of course, but also stay-at-home defensemen Rick Green and Craig Ludwig and pesky center Guy Carbonneau.
Montreal's style was never more apparent than in Game 4, a 1-0 Canadien win that unraveled into a bloody, seamy scrum at game's end. "We have to get bigger," a Flames official had said before the game. "I don't mean we have to come out fighting, but we have to reestablish that we deserve to be here. Montreal obviously isn't intimidated with any part of our game. We've got to go out and run their goalie, get position in front and hit some guys."
A penalty-filled game would have worked to Calgary's advantage. In their previous 10 games, the Flames had scored 22 of their 38 goals during uneven manpower situations—17 on power plays, three while shorthanded and two into empty nets. But the Canadiens weren't biting. At least, not yet. Coach Jean Perron had warned them against taking stupid penalties, and, in a masterly display of discipline, they gave the Flames only one power-play opportunity. Montreal killed that penalty without allowing a shot. The Flames got only 15 shots on goal all told, and their best scoring chance came just 58 seconds into the game, when Roy sprawled to his right to rob right wing Hakan Loob. Missing still another of its standout performers—Mullen, a 44-goal scorer, had injured his neck in Game 3—Calgary couldn't generate any offense.
At the end of two periods the game was scoreless. Then, with 8:50 remaining, Calgary center Doug Risebrough tried a cross-ice clearing pass, which was intercepted by Montreal rookie Claude Lemieux, the surprise offensive star for the Canadiens in these playoffs. Lemieux took two strides and unloaded a blistering slap shot through Vernon's pads for the game's only goal. It was Lemieux's 10th goal of the postseason, and his fourth game-winner.
After the final buzzer the Flames, led by a frustrated Risebrough, began spoiling for a fight. Both benches cleared, and for 10 minutes all manner of embarrassment befell the NHL's showcase event—eyes were gouged, punches were thrown, a finger was bitten. Montreal tough guy Chris Nilan, dressed in civvies after having sprained an ankle in Game 3, served as a kind of cornerman on the Montreal bench, encouraging teammates who attempted to leave the ice for the sanctity of the dressing room to rejoin the fray. The next day league president John Ziegler fined the two teams a total of $42,000. Asked for his reaction to the NHL's apparent outrage, Calgary co-captain Jim Peplinski, whose right index finger bore the toothmarks of the ubiquitous Lemieux, answered dryly, "Did they say anything about cannibalism?"
"If Lemieux survives he's going to be a good player," said Perron, "but everyone hates him so much that I worry. If I had to coach against him, I think I would hate him, too."
In Game 5 in Calgary, Lemieux kept his ivories to himself and stuck to hockey. The 6'1", 208-pound right wing set up both Canadien goals as Montreal took a 2-1 lead after two periods. Calgary coach Bob Johnson, in a desperate attempt to penetrate the slot in front of Roy, intermittently skated defensemen Neil Sheehy and Jamie Macoun on the forward line, with marginal success. Fotiu was back in uniform, but the way he was playing it was a wonder he had ever been missed. The most he could contribute was four minor penalties. The Canadiens did not allow the Flames any second or third chances, and the few times that Calgary unleashed a shot that was not blocked by the flying henchmen of the Montreal defense, Roy was there.
Midway through the third period, when Green and Smith scored 19 seconds apart to give the Canadiens a 4-1 advantage, the outcome seemed to be settled. Then, inexplicably, Montreal began to play like a team with eight rookies—which it has had all along—allowing the seemingly burnt-out Flames back into the game. Steve Bozek scored from Roy's doorstep at 16:46, and then with 46 seconds left Mullen—who was back in action for Game 5, albeit with a neck brace—made it 4-3 after the Flames had pulled their goalie.
Suddenly Macoun was standing alone in front of the Canadiens' goal, the puck on his stick and an open net before him, with 14 seconds remaining on the clock. Roy dived, Macoun shot and the puck hit the Montreal netminder's stick. Roy covered the puck, and the win—the Canadiens' fourth in a row over the Flames—was finally as iced as the champagne cooling in the Montreal dressing room. "Tonight was my turn to play a great game," said Roy, who had a 1.92 goals-against average in postseason play. "I was lucky, I guess."
Maybe the league was lucky, too. After a crazy playoff year filled with a staggering number of upsets and not a little controversy, after a dramaless Stanley Cup finals that was overshadowed by senseless brawling, Les Canadiens sont l√†! The Canadiens, who year in and year out give this troubled sport more class than it sometimes deserves, are back on top. Any season that ends with the Cup in Montreal can't be all that crazy.