Dead. Dead on the frozen water. Dead as smelt. Lifeless, inanimate, without a snowball's chance in hell. That's where the Stanley Cup aspirations of the Montreal Canadiens stood.
They had already dropped the opening game of the finals to the Los Angeles Kings, and now they trailed 2-1 in Game 2 with but 1:45 remaining. Only two NHL teams had ever lost the first two games at home and gone on to win the Stanley Cup, and that hadn't been done since 1966. What to do? wondered Montreal coach Jacques Demers, scanning his bench for a legend waiting to be discovered. No Richards—Maurice or Henri. No Howie Morenz. No Jean Bèliveau. No Boom-Boom Geoffrion or Guy Lafleur.
Demers looked out on the ice for inspiration. He saw King goalie Kelly Hrudey, who to that point in the series had allowed only two goals in 118 minutes. We're dead, he thought. He saw L.A. defenseman Marty McSorley, and...bingo!
Desperate times call for desperate measures. Demers tapped his captain, Guy Carbonneau, on the shoulder and told him to ask referee Kerry Fraser to measure the curve on the blade of McSorley's stick. Since early in Game 1 the Canadiens had suspected it was illegal. But Demers sat on those suspicions until he felt he had nowhere else to turn. Had he been wrong, the Canadiens would have been penalized for delay of game. But in what was, after four games, the defining moment in this strange Stanley Cup final series, Fraser found McSorley's blade was curved more than the legal half inch—a quarter inch more, the NHL's chief of officials, Bryan Lewis, later estimated. McSorley received a two-minute penalty.
Demers turned it into a six-on-four advantage by pulling Patrick Roy out of the Canadien net, a daring move made necessary by the grim fact that the Montreal power play was riding an 0-for-32 streak extending back to the conference finals against the New York Islanders and was 0 for 11 against the Kings. The strategy worked to a T. Make that, to an OT. Thirty-two seconds after Roy was pulled, defenseman Eric Desjardins scored his second goal of the night to tie the game at 2—all. Never mind the replays that clearly showed Canadien forward John LeClair in the crease. Fraser, who had called a raft of ticky-tacky penalties throughout the game, robbing it of any flow, allowed Desjardins's goal to stand.
The score sent the Forum crowd howling with ghostlike glee—whooooo! whooooo!—as white-sheeted specters flitted across the electronic message board. The storied Forum ghosts had struck again, just as they had in 1979, when the Don Cherry-coached Boston Bruins were given their infamous too-many-men-on-the-ice penalty. This was just as unimaginable. An illegal stick? In the Stanley Cup finals? NHL coaches routinely warn their players in the last five minutes of a game to check their equipment. Players are told if there's any doubt at all to switch to a stick they know is legal. No such warning was given on the Kings' bench, and McSorley, caught up in the excitement of the moment, went brain dead. The Forum spirits had struck again, snatching victory for the bleu, blanc et rouge from what seemed to be certain defeat. It took just 51 seconds of overtime for Desjardins to pump another shot past Hrudey, making him the first defenseman ever to score a hat trick in the Stanley Cup finals and knotting the series at one game apiece.
Afterward King coach Barry Melrose was something less than red-faced, attempting to shift the blame for McSorley's gaffe to Demers, who coached Melrose when he played for the WHA's Cincinnati Stingers. "Barry Melrose wouldn't have made that call," Melrose claimed, smugly sanctimonious in defeat. "I don't believe in winning like that."
Right, Barry. And you don't believe in moussing that 'do of yours, either.
"It's part of the game," said Los Angeles's Wayne Gretzky, more reasonably. He cupped his hand into the shape of a C. "When a curve of a stick is like this, it's obvious. We've given them life. Now we're going back home to take it away."
The Kings were hoping that a cross-continental change of Forum, from Montreal's temple of hockey to L.A.'s house of Magic, would take some of the snap out of the Canadiens' stride. Montreal hadn't had to travel out of the eastern time zone since March 6—nearly three months. The Canadiens had logged only 1,928 frequent-flier miles since the beginning of the playoffs, while dispatching the Quebec Nordiques, the Buffalo Sabres and the Islanders; meanwhile, the Kings of the road had flown nearly the equivalent of once around the world—20,393 miles—while beating the Calgary Flames, the Vancouver Canucks and the Toronto Maple Leafs.
That was just one of the intriguing differences between the Kings and the Canadiens, who in many ways represented opposite poles. The Kings, with the third highest payroll in the league, are the glamour boys of hockey, led by His Ninety-nineness, Gretzky, the sport's alltime leading scorer and all-purpose poster boy. The Canadiens, by contrast, are epitomized by Carbonneau, a hardworking defensive specialist who could wear vanity plates on his chest and still not be recognized south of the Canadian border.
Motivation? The 23 Stanley Cup banners hanging from the Montreal Forum rafters provide all the motivation Canadien players will ever need—those banners and a populace of policemen, barbers and mailmen who do not let the players forget that a year without a Stanley Cup is another hockey year wasted. Meanwhile, in L.A., just in case his team needed a little extra incentive, owner Bruce McNall was reported to have offered the King players a million dollars to split if they brought home the franchise's first Stanley Cup. McNall has since denied making the offer, which violates league rules, but let's just say it's not out of character.
Throughout the first week of the finals the Canadiens were serious, businesslike, reserved. The Kings, meanwhile, reflecting the personality of the garrulous, smirky Melrose, fairly bubbled with confidence and humor. "I know this is the Stanley Cup finals, but this team is so loose it's incredible," gushed Los Angeles forward Warren Rychel before Game 1. "We have a lot of clowns on this team."
The brunt of L.A.'s locker room humor was directed at the Kings' Smurf Line of Corey Millen (5'7"), Tony Granato (5'10") and Mike Donnelly (5'11"), a trio of speedsters who have been Los Angeles's second-best line in the playoffs. "McSorley's Smurf jokes are even more vicious than his bodychecks," says Granato. Whenever McSorley spotted one of the threesome making his way toward the whirlpool, he cautioned him to stay out of the deep end. Even equipment manager Peter Millar got his licks in, telling Millen that he wasn't allowed into the whirlpool without a life preserver.
"This team plays better when it's loose," said defenseman Mark Hardy, who came to the Kings from the New York Rangers in midseason. "Like Mark Messier used to say, loose muscles perform better than tight ones."
So why, when the series shifted to the Great Western Forum last Saturday night, did the Kings play the first 27 minutes as if they, not the Canadiens, were jet lagged and semicatatonic? "Maybe nerves. Maybe overexcitement," Gretzky suggested. "Who knows?"
Can't blame the turnout. The glitterati were in full bloom for the first Stanley Cup finals game ever held in California—26 years to the day (June 5, 1967) that the Kings were officially awarded an NHL franchise. It's way cool these days to be a hockey fan, as La La Land has gone ga-ga for its Kings. The ex-prez and Mrs. Reagan were among the 16,005 in attendance, as were Andre Agassi, John Candy, Michael Eisner, Goldie Hawn, Michelle Pfeiffer and a rockin' cast of black-and-silver-clad puckheads.
"Even if they bring Elvis Presley back to sing the national anthem," Demers told his troops, "we can't get involved in all the hoopla. We have to stay focused."
Staying focused is one of the things teams have to do when they aren't blessed with a lot of scoring punch, which the Canadiens assuredly are not. When Demers isn't nabbing opponents for illegal equipment, most of the Montreal offense is tirelessly provided by Kirk Muller, Vincent Damphousse and Brian Bellows, who rely on defensemen like Desjardins and Mathieu Schneider to jump in to help create scoring chances. Then everybody scurries back to play defense. The Canadiens aren't a particularly big or fast team. But they are, first and foremost, a team, well managed and well coached, with strong leadership. The Canadiens don't make a lot of mistakes. Their best player is Roy, a five-time All-Star and the MVP of the 1986 playoffs, which was the last time the Habs won the Cup.
Montreal came out flying in Game 3, building a 3-0 second-period lead, but in a stirring example of how potent the Los Angeles offense can be when an opponent lets down its guard, Luc Robitaille, Granato and Gretzky scored in a span of just over nine minutes in the second period to suddenly tie the game 3-3.
The Canadiens weathered the Kings' flurry and then started to count their blessings. Tied after two? Great. Let's get this baby into overtime. Eight times in a row during these playoffs Montreal had prevailed in OT—an NHL record. And into overtime the third game went, but not before Robitaille had missed the net on a clean breakaway in the final minutes of the third period. Said Robitaille, a 63-goal scorer in the regular season, "I should have had that one."
Yes, just as 34 seconds into overtime LeClair should have been flattened by one of the Kings before, on his third try, he lifted the puck over the fallen Hrudey. The goal gave the Canadiens their ninth straight overtime win, their second in a row over the Kings and, most important, a two games to one lead in the series.
On Monday the Canadiens did it again in OT, as LeClair scored his second consecutive sudden-death goal to give Montreal a 3-2 victory. That win brought the Habs one step closer to their 24th Cup.
Robitaille's missed breakaway. LeClair's three whacks in OT in Game 3. McSorley's illegal stick. These are things that cost teams championships. These are mistakes that those longtime Stanley Cup party animals, Les Canadiens, chew up and wash down with great gulps of champagne. As the Kings discovered last week, the Habs are never dead.