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Could the Canadiens have beaten the Leafs in 1967?

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What caused the Habs to lose the final Stanley Cup of the Original Six era?

1967 Stanley Cup Finals - Game 5: Toronto Maple Leafs v Montreal Canadiens Photo by Bruce Bennett Studios via Getty Images Studios/Getty Images

The 1966-67 National Hockey League season was the final hurrah for the “Original Six” era that lasted 25 years. The league was about to change with the addition of a second division filled with expansion teams for the following season. What better way to end the era than a Stanley Cup Final between two of the most decorated franchises of all time up to that point: the Montreal Canadiens with 14 Stanley Cups and the Toronto Maple Leafs with 12?

In order for this monumental matchup to happen, the defending champion Canadiens had to first dispose of the New York Rangers in the first round, sweeping them in four games. They did so with a bit of a challenge, but seemingly their established stars like Jean Beliveau, Henri Richard, Bobby Rousseau, Yvan Cournoyer, and John Ferguson rose up to the challenge to move on.

Meanwhile, the Toronto Maple Leafs, celebrating their 50th season, scored a major upset over Stan Mikita, Glenn Hall, Pierre Pilote, Bobby Hull, and the powerhouse Chicago Blackhawks, taking their first-round series in six games despite having the oldest lineup in the league, made up of numerous veterans: Red Kelly (39 years old), George Armstrong (36), Marcel Provonost (36), Terry Sawchuk (37), Allan Stanley (41), Tim Horton (37), and Johnny Bower (42).

Heading into the Final, the Canadiens were the favourites, despite Toronto getting past Chicago. “Youth with prevail over the old Toronto legs in six games,” boldly predicted Jacques Beauchamp, a reporter at the time for Montreal-Matin. “How can you not give the advantage to a team who has not lost in 15 straight games? The Canadiens have all the necessary qualities: speed, defensive mobility, robust players.”

Rene Lecavalier of Radio-Canada said that “the factors that can influence this series are so many, that I have to say that the Canadiens will either win it quickly, or after a long battle.”

If Montreal media sounded confident of a Canadiens win, Maple Leafs head coach Punch Imlach had different ideas. “The Canadiens are the big favourites, and frankly I hope it stays that way. We were the ‘little guys’ at the start of our series against the Blackhawks. We did well in that role. I have nothing against them thinking that again.”

Game 1: Statement made

The first game of the series, held at the Forum, was all Montreal from start to finish. The home team dominated the Leafs at every aspect of the game, leading in shots 44-26, and winning 6-2 in a rout. Henri Richard scored his first playoff hat trick, while older brother Maurice cheered him on from the stands.

It was rookie goaltender Rogie Vachon who set the tone early, making an important save on Tim Horton at the start of the game. The Leafs had won every game against the Blackhawks when they scored first, so Vachon’s save could have been a major key in this first game.

Imlach, deciding that the game was out of reach by the third period, rested his top players and his banged-up starting goalie, Sawchuk, in preparation for Game 2.

Game 2: Back down to Earth

If things went exceedingly well in the first game, it couldn’t have been any more different in the second. “My team delivered an almost perfect game which must have surprised a lot of fans,” said Imlach after the Leafs shut out the Canadiens 3-0 to level the series. Toronto led in shots on net as well, 43-31, as Bower replaced Sawchuk in net due to the latter’s injuries. Toronto’s first two goals were power-play goals, which allowed them to begin setting the pace as they slowed down the game and made Montreal chase the puck for the remainder of the game.

“No need to be alarmed,” said Canadiens head coach Toe Blake nonchalantly. “After all we were bound to lose a game eventually. During this long winning streak I was worried that players would get cocky. This loss will certainly inspire the players to redouble their efforts.”

Game 3: Double overtime drama

The series turned to Toronto for the third match, which ended up being probably the best game of the series. Blake changed his lines a little to jolt his players. Beliveau played with Ferguson and Cournoyer, Richard played with Rousseau and Dick Duff, and Ralph Backstrom played with Gilles Tremblay and Claude Larose.

The game went into double overtime tied at two. Henri Richard was carried off the ice after taking a big hit, and Toronto quickly scored to take the series lead. “It’s nothing serious [with Richard],” said the team physician Dr. Kinnear. “He was winded and also felt a violent headache.”

“I didn’t absorb the hit right,” said Richard after the game. Losing Richard seemed like the moment the air was let out. “That’s where we lost the game” said a dejected Cournoyer.

The Canadiens put an incredible 62 shots on Bower, but only beat him twice, once by Beliveau and once by Ferguson. Vachon stopped 51 shots for the Canadiens, earning the praise of Imlach who earlier classified him as a “Junior B” goalie.

“It was an amazing effort by both team, like you rarely see,” said Blake. “Now we must win a game here (in Toronto), and I would certainly like for it to be the next game.”

Game 4: The Canadiens strike back

Certainly Blake got his wish as the Canadiens crushed the Maple Leafs in Game 4 by a score of 6-2, levelling the series at two games apiece. The Maple Leafs had to make a last-minute change to their lineup, inserting Sawchuk back in net after Bower injured himself during warmups and was unable to play. Sawchuk appeared nervous and unprepared to play, and gave up all six goals on 40 shots. The Toronto crowd jeered him as the game concluded.

If the Canadiens’ centre line scored most of the goals (two from Beliveau and Backstrom, and one from Richard), it was Vachon who once again stole the spotlight early, stopping two important scoring chances for the home team and making 38 saves overall in the win. “Those are the kind of saves that are of critical importance in the playoffs,” said Beliveau after the win.

Game 5: Don’t get cocky, kid

The tipping point of the series was Game 5. On the surface it seemed like the Canadiens had all the momentum headed in. Bower, the author of both Toronto wins in the series to that point, stayed at home due to a hip injury when the team travelled to Montreal, and Sawchuk looked spent. Meanwhile, Vachon was sporting a save percentage of .939 in the series and was already being talked about as a serious Conn Smyth Trophy candidate should the Canadiens win the Cup.

Montreal seemed to have more fire in their bellies than the Leafs, possibly due to the long layoff between rounds thanks to a hasty elimination of the Rangers. “We’re less sick of hockey than the Maple Leafs, because we had a healthy break before the start of this series. You can really feel the difference,” said Bobby Rousseau. “I really believe that we will win. Our youth and our speed will be predominant factors from here on in.”

But while the Canadiens took a leisurely optional skate at the Forum on the eve of Game 5 confident of their chances, the Leafs all stayed away from the ice, rewatching the film of Game 4. Studying it. Learning from it. “I don’t need to remind them of their mistakes. Film is worth 1,000 words,” said Imlach.

The Canadiens came out on fire at the start of Game 5 in front of a sellout crowd at the Montreal Forum, hoping to quickly capitalize on what they expected to be a vulnerable Sawchuk, but he rose to the challenge and defied early attempts by Tremblay and Cournoyer. The Canadiens did manage to beat Sawchuk with Leon Rochefort scoring his first goal of the playoffs six minutes in to give the Canadiens the lead.

Just like Game 2, the Canadiens’ lack of discipline would haunt them again. They dominated in shots 13-7 in the first, but the Leafs did manage to tie up the score toward the end of the period when Larose was serving a penalty, deemed “useless” by journalists afterward.

The game and the series took a turn early in the second when the referee Bill Friday didn’t call a hooking penalty on Red Kelly who took down Beliveau, and moments later Brian Conachar scored for the Maple Leafs to give them the 2-1 lead. “I certainly didn’t fall on my own,” yelled Beliveau after the game. The non-call and the subsequent Leafs goal seemed to completely throw the Canadiens off their game, from which they never recovered their focus. Later in the second period, the Canadiens, on a power play, bungled the puck in their zone and Provonost grabbed it to score an unassisted short-handed goal to give Toronto the two-goal lead.

It seemed that the older legs of the Leafs were not content in protecting the lead as they normally would have, but had decided to continue to push and push, and the Canadiens had no answer. A defensive error by Tremblay gave the Leafs another power play goal in the final minute of a disastrous second period for the Canadiens.

After allowing four goals on 19 shots, Vachon was pulled for the third period in favour of Lorne “Gump” Worsley, who had not played in almost six weeks after suffering a knee injury and a concussion when a fan at Madison Square Garden hit him in the temple with a hard-boiled egg. Worsley stopped all 10 shots he faced, but the Leafs, up 4-1, concentrated on maintaining an airtight defensive structure. Despite giving up more shots in the period, none were considered to be dangerous on Sawchuk, simply shots from the perimeter to get the puck on the net. With 38 shots on goal in the game, the Canadiens managed to beat Sawchuk just once. Toronto would claim victory on the road to take the lead in the series 3-2.

The Canadiens’ swagger that they displayed the day before was all but gone after the game. It was replaced with frustration about what they considered a non-call, anger at the penalties and mistakes that led to the Toronto goals, and a unified cry of “we will be back here for Game 7!” What else were they going to say? But for the first time in a very long time, these Canadiens appeared vulnerable.

Meanwhile journalists gathered around Sawchuk after the game, and asked him whether he got lucky in this game. He calmly lit a cigarette and answered, “I hope to get lucky one more time.”

Game 6: And just like that, it’s gone

The big question going into Game 6 was whether Blake would return with rookie Vachon, who played so brilliantly all playoffs long until he got pulled in Game 5, or would he default back to his season-long starter Worlsey. The call was to go with Worsley, and ultimately it could have been a deciding factor that gave the Maple Leafs the Stanley Cup, though not the biggest reason.

The Canadiens’ forwards had gone silent. No amount of line-juggling by Blake was able to find a spark to light the team. Henri Richard was in a total funk. “The way I’m playing right now the choice of stick doesn’t even matter. Sometimes I ask myself if a back-scratcher wouldn’t be better suited to score some goals.” After scoring a hat trick in the first game, Richard would only score one more for the rest of the series. Doubt was creeping into the players’ minds.

No goals were scored in the first period of Game 6 as the Canadiens peppered Sawchuk with 17 shots to Toronto’s 11. The Canadiens were again called for multiple penalties in the first, frequently cutting off their momentum.

The Leafs managed to break the ice shortly after a power play expired, when Ron Ellis scored on assists by Kelly and Stanley. The rest of the period was a goaltender duel and the Canadiens could not capitalize on two man advantages.

The bottom dropped out in the final minute of the second as Pappin scored his seventh goal of the playoffs to give the Leafs a 2-0 lead headed into the third.

Duff scored early in the final frame to give the Canadiens a glimmer of hope, but both teams were playing such tight defence that chances were few and far between. As the final faceoff was about to take place in the Leafs’ zone, Blake pulled Worlsey for an extra attacker, and it was all the veterans for the Leafs who were assigned by Imlach to wrap it up, with determination coursing through their bodies. Leafs captain George Armstrong scored an empty-net goal to seal the 3-1 victory and the 11th Stanley Cup for Toronto.

Denouement

It wasn’t necessarily a bad decision to go with Worsley for Game 6 as both he and Sawchuk delivered a goaltending battle suited for such a high-stakes game. Worsley made 33 saves while Sawchuk made 40. At the end of the day, Worsley let in one goal more than Sawchuk.

It was the Leafs’ hermetic defence that completely stymied the Canadiens’ powerhouse forwards, and you can trace it back to the evening where the Leafs watched the film of Game 4. “I did my best,” Worsley said afterward, “but Sawchuk and the Leafs were just not giving us anything.”

“If the Canadiens scored the first goal of the game, their skaters would have the wind under wing. We were absolutely convinced that we had to score the first goal,” said Kelly from the champions’ locker room.

Meanwhile anger and frustration from the previous post-game was replaced with a “mortuary silence” in the Canadiens’ dressing room after the game. “It was a veritable championship game,” muttered Sam Pollock. “The Maple Leafs battled fervently. They didn’t steal the Stanley Cup from us. We ceded it to a team that was worthy to be the World Champions.”

“The turning point of the series? The second game, the one that we lost by shutout,” said Blake. “Nobody doubts that this win didn’t have a unifying effect on the Maple Leafs. Then Sawchuk beat us in the last two games. Look at the shot count.” Sawchuk only allowed two goals in the final two games, posting a .975 save percentage.

“All Final series are hard. But I have to admit that this one is one of the hardest fought series that we have ever lost.” said Blake. To the credit of both teams, this hard-fought series was free of any cheap shots, of any fighting, of anything that took away from the pureness of the game of hockey.

Coulda, woulda, shoulda

So what were the determining moments where the series could have gone the Canadiens’ way? There are five to point out:

  • Would the Canadiens have won Game 3 in double overtime had Richard not been knocked out of the game?
  • If Bower didn’t get hurt in the warmup of Game 4, would he have remained Imlach’s go-to and performed at the level of Sawchuk in Games 5 and 6?
  • Should Blake have seen signs of overconfidence in his players and mandated a full team practice prior to Game 5 instead of making it a relaxed optional?
  • Had Kelly been called for tripping in Game 5, could the Canadiens have taken advantage of the power play to score the first goal and gain momentum in the game?
  • Should Blake have kept the hot Vachon in net for Game 6 rather than go with Worsley who hadn’t played a full game in over six weeks?

Obviously these questions will never be answered, and the Maple Leafs will go down in history as the Stanley Cup champions in 1967, a victory they celebrate to this day as their most recent.

The loss to Toronto would split a run of two Stanley Cup championships prior for Montreal, and two championships after. Had they beat Toronto in 1967, it would have been yet another five consecutive Stanley Cups for the franchise, and yet another dynasty that would be talked about to this day. But circumstances, and frankly a deserving Toronto team, came to play spoiler for this unachieved legacy.