Game Three of the 1961 Stanley Cup semi final has been described by legendary writer Red Fisher as "the greatest game among the thousands I’ve seen." He also lists the game as the third greatest moment he has seen, behind Paul Henderson's historic goal in 1972 and the Richard Riot.
But why would the third game of a best of seven series stand out amongst all the games Fisher has watched on his 50-plus years of covering the NHL and the Montreal Canadiens?
The answer can be defined in one word, goaltending.
To set the table, the Canadiens finished in first place to close out the 1960-61 season. Despite the retirement of Maurice "Rocket" Richard, the Habs were still a powerhouse in the league.Bernie Geoffrion and Jean Beliveau finished first and second respectively in scoring and teammates Dickie Moore and Henri Richard also finished in the top ten. Doug Harvey was still as defensive giant, en route to his 6th Norris Trophy.
Between the pipes, was the innovator of goaltending, Jacques Plante.
Their opponents in the semi-finals were the Chicago Blackhawks. The Chicago squad had up and coming stars in Stan Mikita, Bobby Hull. On the blueline, Pierre Pilote was already making All-Stars squads and developing into an eventual three-time Norri Trophy winner.
Their man between the pipes, the iron man of goaltending and master of the butterfly style, Glenn Hall.
The season before, the Canadiens swept the Blackhawks in their semi-final matchup en route to their fifth Stanley Cup.
At the end of the 1960-61 season, Montreal had finished first in goals, while Chicago was second in goals allowed. The Habs had their eyes on a sixth straight, but the Chicago squad had other plans.
The two teams split the first two games at the Montreal Forum with the home team taking the first game 6-2, while the visitors squeaked out a 4-3 win.
Game Three would be in Chicago at the famed. and notoriously loud, Chicago Arena.
Both Hall and Plante brought their A-game for this matchup. There was no scoring in the first period, and most of the second as the two goalies stopped any rubber discs that came their way.
A pivotal moment in the game, and for that matter the series, also struck the Canadiens as Geoffrion suffered a knee injury in the period. The 50-goal scorer played a few shifts in the second period, before calling it a night. The injury would be a serious blow to the Canadiens offense the rest of the series, as Geoffrion wouldn't return until Game Six, and only briefly.
The second period was more of the same, but the Blackhawks finally got on the board, at 18:33. Plante was able to stop Hull's shot, but the rebound found the stick of Murray Balfour (sold the Chicago by Montreal two years earlier) who rifled it into the net.
The third period continued in the same fashion in front of the respective nets, as both goalies held the fort. Hall would make outstanding saves, then Plante. Plante then Hall. The Chicago crowd was ecstatic, hoping their team could hold on to the 1-0 lead.
With 39 seconds remaining, and playing four-on-four Canadiens coach Toe Blake pulled Plante for an extra attacker. With the faceoff in the Chicago zone, and to Hall's right. Phil Goyette needed to win the draw, or the game would in all likelihood be over. He did, anddished the puck off to a waiting Richard, who drilled it past Hall.
Fisher has a different take, citing in his report that Richard took the draw, won it, and shot it immediately.
The loud and cheering Chicago crowd was suddenly silent and in shock to what had happened. The game would be headed to overtime tied at one goal apiece. The Canadiens had fired 30 shots at Hall to the Blackhawks 20 on Plante.
Overtime had to be a fist clencher for fans of both teams. Beliveau had a breakaway chance thwarted by Hall. Ralph Backstrom also had an opportunity lost for the Habs, when he lost control of the puck, and Hall came up big on Don Marshall
The Blackhawks also had their chances, with Bill Hay being stopped on a rush after Plante desperately stretched out his stick. Ken Wharram was also stymied by Plante. A huge scramble in the Canadiens crease also had fans off their feet, but the play was whistled dead once the referee lost sight of the puck under a pile of Canadiens players.
The first extra period ended with both teams getting eight shots on goal.
It appeared that the Habs had the game won, in the second overtime, after Marshall deflected a Harvey shot over the shoulder of Hall and into the net. Referee Dalton MacArthur immediately waived it off, ruling that Marshall's stick was above his shoulder when he touched the puck.
"Have you ever heard 20,000 throats sigh with relief? The sound rose from the seats and even the fury of the Canadiens and the shrieks from coach Toe Blake were lost."
Shots on goal, Chicago 13, Montreal 10.
It what had been a penalty-filled game, (13 called on each side) Beliveau had a chance to win it in the third overtime, on a Habs power play. But again the Chicago netminder shut the door and would do the same on Marcel Bonin, and Junior Langlois. Richard would get a last breakaway, but Hall stopped him at the lest moment. Another opportunity wasted came for the Habs when Claude Provost missed the empty net.
The Blackhawks were also snake-bitten, and not just by "Jake the Snake." Tod Sloan had a chance to put the game away, but like Provost, he too missed the net.
The home team finally got their break, when Moore was called for a borderline tripping call. "Put it this way," Fisher notes in his book "Hockey Heroes, and Me," "There had been occasions earlier in the game when far worse penalties could have been called - against either team."
Twenty-eight seconds later,at 12:12 of the third overtime the game was over when Balfour found the loose puck out of a scramble in front of the net. An epic goaltending battle was over with Hall making 53 saves to Plante's 43.
"It was just a matter of breaks," said Blackhawks coach Rudy Pilous, praising the efforts of both goalies. "You don't win a series in two games, but it sure helps."
The crowd of 16,666 fans inside Chicago Stadium erupted into cheers and screams of celebration and debris littered the ice.
An enraged Blake, frustrated by the officiating, broke free of his players, took a stroll on to the ice and punched referee MacArthur before being taken off the ice by his players.
"A good referee would never have called that penalty, particularly at that stage of such an important game," Blake said.
Blake avoided suspension, as the incident occurred after the game was over, but NHL president Clarence Campbell did fine him $2000. "it wasn't even a decent punch," Blake later told Fisher. Campbell must have felt that the Canadiens' coach's actions had a bit of merit, as MacArthur was fired at the end of the season.
The Canadiens would win the next game in Chicago on a 5-2 score where they fired 60 shots at Hall. The Chicago backstop bounced back and shutout the Canadiens, in the next two games, to take the series.
The Blackhawks would go on to claim the Stanley Cup, defeating the Detroit Red Wings in six games.The franchise wouldn't see another until 2010. Hall allowed just 12 goals in those six games. There was no Conn Smythe Trophy at that time, but if there was Mr. Goalie would have walked away with it.
As time went on the two netminders would become teammates with the St. Louis Blues. Plante had already won six Vezina Trophies in his career, and Hall two. They would share the award, in St. Louis, in the 1968-69 season.
Sources for this article
Fisher, Red "Hockey Heroes, and Me"
McFarlane, Brian "True Hockey Stories: The Habs"
The Ottawa Citizen - March 27, 1961
The Montreal Gazette - March27, 1961
The Montreal Gazette - March 29, 1961