Canadiens – Red Army, December 31st 1979: the New Year’s Eve rematch that closed a great decade

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On this last day of 2009, the Montreal Canadiens face the Florida Panthers to close the team’s 10th decade, the first one of this century.

Since last spring, we know that this is the first decade in which the Canadiens haven’t won a Stanley Cup.

Today, we skip back to a game that concluded the 1970’s decade, the winningest in Canadiens history with six Stanley Cups. Thirty years ago, on December 31st 1979, as part of Super Series '80, was played a classic rematch of the '75 New Year’s Eve game between the Canadiens and the Soviet Central Red Army team.

Just about everything has been said about the '75 New Year’s Eve game, which is considered to be one of the most memorable in hockey history. In a game in which two powerful teams with two different systems of play confronted one another, the Canadiens dominated, outshooting the Red Army 38-13. In a battle of nations, it was essentially Canada versus Russia all over again, but this time, the Canadiens had to settle for a 3-3 tie. As powerful as Montreal were, they were stymied many times over by goaltender Vladislav Tretiak (the obvious first star) while the Red Army made the most of their chances on Ken Dryden. By now, just about everybody has seen the video, especially since it was part of the 10 great Montreal Canadiens games DVD set.

For some reason, the '79 rematch is never mentioned in the same breath as the '75 game, and its highlights are never shown, even though it pitted the four-time Stanley Cup champion Canadiens against a Red Army team which was itself four-time Soviet champion.

Closing the decade, the buildup to this classic match hyped the game as one which would unofficially crown the best club team of the 1970's. We now give this great matchup its due and provide a chance for fans to watch the highlights from this.

The game was actually the third one between the Canadiens and a Soviet Union team. On January 6 1978, the Canadiens posted a 5-2 win against a touring Moscow Spartak team that included Alexander Yakushev, the tremendous Soviet player who was part of the '72 Summit Series team.

For this '79 New Year's Eve rematch, many favored the Red Army. After all, in the team's lineup were 14 members of the Soviet National Team that beat the NHL’s best in the Challenge Cup in February of 1979, handing the NHL'ers a humiliating 6-0 loss in the deciding game 3.

As for the Canadiens, they had lost some key players from the previous spring’s Cup win. Ken Dryden, Jacques Lemaire and Yvan Cournoyer had all retired, and coach Scotty Bowman had left to coach and manage Buffalo. But the Habs still formed a great hockey team. Claude Ruel had taken over the team’s coaching reigns in mid December following Bernie Geoffrion's resignation during a difficult sequence.

Offensively, Guy Lafleur and Pierre Larouche were on their way to 50 goal seasons and Steve Shutt would end up just three goals shy with 47. On defense, the team still had the Big Three of Larry Robinson, Serge Savard and Guy Lapointe, in addition to rearguards Rod Langway and Brian Engblom.

As in the '75 game, the Red Army team was undefeated before facing the Canadiens in '79. Back in 1975, the Red Army had beaten the New York Rangers 7-3. This time, they readied themselves for the Canadins after having bested the Rangers 5-2 and the New York Islanders 3-2.

Coach Ruel's game plan was based on an intense forechecking system designated to prevent the Soviet team from adopting their free wheeling style. He presented the following lineup.

Forwards:

Steve Shutt / Pierre Larouche / Guy Lafleur

Bob Gainey / Doug Jarvis / Réjean Houle

Yvon Lambert / Doug Risebrough / Mario Tremblay

Mark Napier / Pierre Mondou /  Normand Dupont

Defense:

Larry Robinson / Serge Savard

Rod Langway / Brian Engblom

Gilles Lupien / Rick Chartraw

Goal:

Richard Sevigny

Note: Dupont and Chartraw dressed for the game but did not see any shifts. The Canadiens went with five defensemen and double shifted Lafleur on a line with Napier and Mondou.

Out of the lineup:    

Guy Lapointe (flu)

Danny Geoffrion (healthy scratch)

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A crowd of 17,000 packed the Forum for this highly anticipated rematch. From the highlights presented in the following videos, it’s easy to feel the emotion of players and fans, which certainly matched the excitement of the '75 game or the atmosphere of a playoff game. Images are worth thousands of words, so here goes:

Pre-game:

 

First period:

  

 

Second period:

Third period and post-game:

 

Here is the game summary:

First period

1- Canadiens: Y. Lambert (P. Mondou, G. Lafleur) 16:36

Penalties : Savard 4 :44, Lafleur and Kovin 12 :14, Petrov 15 :10

Second period

 2-Red Army: V. Zhluktov (S. Gimayev, H. Balderis) 6:51

 3-Red Army: H. Balderis (V. Zhluktov, A. Kasatonov) 12:02

 Penalties: S. Gimayev 8:50, S. Shutt 12:35

Third period

 4. Canadiens: S. Shutt (G. Lafleur, L. Robinson) 3 :38

 5. Canadiens: B. Gainey (D. Jarvis, B. Engblom) 9:38

 6. Canadiens: S. Shutt (S. Savard, P. Larouche) 12:10

 Penalties : A. Kasatonov 18:11

Shots on goal

Red Army:  3-6-5=14

Canadiens: 13-8-14=35

Players of the game : Bob Gainey, Victor Zhlutkov

As the '75 game, the Canadiens certainly dominated. And it seems fitting that the Canadiens won by coming back in the third period as they did so often during their 4 Cup-run.

"You made a lot of people happy tonight. We are proud of you, " said NHL president John Ziegler to coach Claude Ruel after the game.

"It’s the best team we've played," said of the Canadiens Soviet coach Victor Thikonov, who heckled some of his players.

Note from the game: You might have noticed in the picture or in the video that the Red Army players were wearing white socks with their red jerseys. Apparently, the team had only brought white socks on the tour. That did not sit well with some Canadiens players. Defenceman Serge Savard noted that in the corners, if you had your head down, it was hard to tell the difference between the two team’s players sets of legs.

In it's next game, on January 3rd, Red Army was soundly beaten 6-1 by Bowman’s well prepared and inspired Buffalo Sabres. Three days later, the Red Army closed out their series of games with a 6-4 win against the Quebec Nordiques.

Six weeks later, at least a dozen members of this Red Army team would be part of the Soviet National Team that took part in the Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, New York. There of course, it would be stunned by the young United States team in what is called The Miracle on Ice.

As for the Canadiens, they had a strong second half and totalled 47 wins and 107 points for the season, which ranked them third overall in the NHL. Before the 1980 playoffs began, the Hockey News picked the Canadiens and the Buffalo Sabres as the top contending teams for the Stanley Cup. It is certain that the absence of Guy Lafleur, out with a season ending knee injury, was a factor in the Canadiens’ seven game loss to the Minnesota North Stars, thus foiling the team’s quest of capturing a fifth consecutive Stanley Cup, a feat that would have matched the 1950’s dynasty.

The Canadiens later had other New Year’s Eve games against Soviet teams. On New Year's Eve 1982, the Canadiens were beaten 5-0 by the Soviet All Stars. The game was closer for longer than the score indicates, as the Soviets led only 1-0 after 40 minutes before exploding for four goals in the third period. Vladislav Tretiak was chosen the Soviet team’s star, as he stopped all 30 shots fired at him. On this occasion, the Soviets outshot the Habs, directing 37 at Habs goaltender Richard Sevigny.

On December 31st 1983 and 1984, the Canadiens played hotly contested New Year’s Eve games against their arch-rival Quebec Nordiques.

Then, on New Year’s Eve 1985, 10 years after the fabled ’75 game, the Canadiens had another rematch with the Red Army team. Even though the Canadiens had a slight edge in shots (24-22), the Red Army posted a 6-1 win, sparked by a three goal performance by Sergei Makarov. Mats Naslund scored the lone Canadiens goal. On a positive note, rookie goaltender Patrick Roy took over from Doug Soetart after Red Army’s sixth goal in the third and did not give up a goal in the final 12 minutes he played. There is no doubt that the Habs were capable of a better result, and they would show it a few months later, as they captured their 23rd Stanley Cup, with the help of Roy’s heroics.

That 1985 game marked the last time the Canadiens met the Red Army team or any Soviet union team on New Year’s Eve. Here is the list other Canadiens games vs Soviet teams since 1986. In September 1990, the Canadiens traveled to Sweden and the Soviet Union to hold their training camp and play exhibition games.

January 3 1990             Canadiens 2 Soviet Wings 1   

September 12 1990       Canadiens 5 Leningrad 3

September 14 1990       Canadiens 4 Riga 2

September 16 1990       Dynamo 4 Canadiens 1  

September 18 1990       Red Army 3 Canadiens 2  (OT)

December 10 1990        Khimik Voskresensk 6 Canadiens 3

And on this day, synonymous with classic Montreal Canadiens games, Happy New Year Year Habs fans! 

Robert L note: Call it coincidence or serendipity, as Francis had been working and researching this post for a good three weeks, when I received an e-mail four days ago from reader Ashok Singh, who of course, had no way of knowing what Francis and I were up to. Ashok remembered the '79 game quite well. in fact, he had written an article on it. He sent me his work along with a scan of an article published on the game in the Globe and Mail the following day. Mr. Singh was curious to inquire if I would consider running an article featuring his contributions. What follows are his thoughts on the '79 game and the Globe piece from January 2, 1980.

The Forgotten Game

By Ashok Singh

 

Dec. 31, 1979.

 

It was the end of an era, the end of the sensational seventies. It was also the last hurrah for one of the greatest teams of all time. The Montreal Canadiens of the late 70’s won four straight Stanley Cups and could have won more if not for the inept management after Sam Pollock’s departure. Everyone remembers the memorable game on New Year’s Eve 1975 between the Soviet Red Army and the Canadiens. The game four years later is almost forgotten.

 

If a term can describe a game, than it would be ‘PRIDE’. The Canadiens were the defending champions but were in a big transitional year. During the previous summer coach Scotty Bowman, goalie Ken Dryden, and Jacques Lemaire left the team. The latter two retired. Yvon Cornouyer also retired after an injury plagued season the year before. Their new coach Bernie Geoffrion quit or was fired after only a few months on the job. Claude Ruel was a reluctant replacement. The team was going through changes and it reflected in their play and standing. They were a .500 hockey club that used to dominate the league the previous years. Some of their stellar players such as Serge Savard were slowing due to age and injuries. Guy Lapointe missed the game due to injury.

 

In this scenario they were to play the mighty Soviet Red Army who would like nothing less than beating the defending four time Stanley Cup champions. The whole world was watching this unique matchup, the sequel to the greatest game off all time. Earlier in the year, they beat the NHL all stars in the Challenge Cup, dominating the last game 6-0. They were getting ready for the Olympics and formed a top notch team. They beat the upcoming (eventual Stanley Cup Champions) New York Islanders 3-2 a few nights earlier and were on top of their game.

 

The Canadiens were struggling and were to play perhaps the best team in the world. During a stretch in December, they lost 6 in a row. That was unheard of for the team in the 70s. Would Richard Sevigny match up to the great Vladislav Tretiak ? When told he was starting the game, Sevigny was unable to sleep the night before. What about the coaching of Claude Ruel against the mastermind of Victor Tikhinov?

 

However the edge the Canadiens had over the Soviets was pride and emotion. They knew they were the defending champions and everyone was watching. They knew their fans wanted them to win badly, especially after the disappointing 3-3 tie when they outplayed the Red Army.

 

The key to the Canadiens were their nucleus. Guy Lafleur, Larry Robinson, Bob Gainey, Steve Shutt were young and a big force. They had to be at their best for the Canadiens to win. They did and Serge Savard, Rod Langway, Mario Tremblay, Regean Houle, Mark Napier, Yvon Lambert, played the game of their lives. Richard Sevigny played a strong game (except for one weak goal). 

 

The Canadiens came prepared and determined to win.

 

Despite being down 2-1 going into the third period, they knew they had an uphill task to score on Tretiak while keeping the Soviets off the scoreboard. The Canadiens found some extra energy, strength or whatever was needed to find a way to win. They stunned the Forum crowd and the Red Army with three unanswered goals to win 4-2. 

 

Broadcaster Dick Irvin said to Bob Gainey, MVP of the game, "both teams knew this is not just an exhibition game." 

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