Eyes On A Dynasty - Day 11: The Rocket's Last Hurrah
At no time in his 18 year career, did Maurice "Rocket" Richard miss as many games as the 42 he lost to injury in the 1957-58 season. It would be a devastating regular season for the resilient Canadiens, injury wise, but thankfully, team depth came to the fore. For the 36 year old Rocket, the circumstances were more personal. It almost seemed as though he had something to prove well beyond team goals, as whispers that his career was threatened elicited a response from the always fiery player. On Day 11 of the Eyes On A Dynasty series, we take a look at Richard the captain, carrying the club to the ultimate goal, while sealing his own legacy. A nod of the CH cap to longtime EOTP reader Peter Young for inspiration with this one.
The 1957-58 campaign was a difficult one for the Montreal Canadiens and their star Maurice Richard. After winning Stanley Cup in 1956 and 1957, injuries began to mount, but surprisingly, they failed to take their toll on the team's point total.
Center Jean Beliveau missed 15 games with a rib injury. To his right, winger Bernie Geoffrion was absent for 28, but was lucky to be alive. In a January practice, the Boomer suffered a ruptured bowel that required emergency surgery to save his life. Late in the season, goalie Jacques Plante, who had missed some games due to asthma attacks, was knocked out for two weeks with a concussion. Forward Bert Olmstead and defenseman Jean-Guy Talbot were missing for 13 and 15 games respectively.
Examples of courage on the beaten up team were found everywhere one looked inside the dressing room. Forward Dickie Moore, playing through aches and pains with a cast on his broken wrist, won the league scoring title. Some players, such as Claude Provost picked up their games, while other forged on through the injuries they nursed.
It is a great credit to the player's resillience and also to the management of Frank Selke that the Canadiens of 1958 improved by 14 points in the standings to win the regular season title once again.
Aside from Geoffrion's near death experience, the first and most serious injury incurred by a member of the club was the Rocket's torn achilles tendon, suffered in a November 13 game in Toronto.
Prior to the injury, Rocket had been tearing up the scoresheets with 11 goals and 12 assists in his first 13 games. He began the season with customary fire in his eyes, sitting at 493 career goals. Intent on hitting the 500 mark with little delay, it took the 36 year old Richard a mere six game to reach the landmark.
Richard began his season by scoring a goal against the Blackhawks on October 10. Shutout two nights later in a 2-2 tie with the Rangers, Maurice kept apace with a three goal, one assist performance in a 6-0 shutout of the Red Wings at the Detroit Olympia on October 13. In Chicago the following Tuesday, Richard contributed a pair of assists in a three-all draw
The Rocket was now three goals away from the 500 plateau, approaching a three game homestand at the Forum. On Thursday, Richard played a large role in the 9-3 demolishing of the Leafs. His four point night, including two goals, put him one shy of the target.
As the Canadiens prepared to face the Blackhawks on Saturday, October 19, Rocket fans in Montreal were in a frenzy. Several made banners saluting the expected exploit and newspapers ran contests to guess the particulars of Richard's next goal. The Labbatt Beer company even got in on the act, promoting their "50" brand with the tag line "50 is everywhere these days!"
In the contest against Chicago, the Rocket did not disappoint, scoring the game's first marker 15:52 into the first period, assisted by linemates Jean Beliveau and Dickie Moore. The Forum, as one would imagine, erupted at the sight of their hero slipping a wrist shot past Hawks goalie Glenn Hall.
In the highlights clip from the October 19 game, we see several of the Rocket's scoring chances leading up to the anticipated goal. On the first, Richard is double mugged on the way to the crease, first by future Canadien Ian Cushenan (6) who wraps his arms around the Rocket to slow him up. As he falls into the crease after unleashing his shot, he's then kneed in the ribs, elbowed and sticked in the head by an uneccessarily falling Glen Skov (14). On the next sequence, after a Richard shot on goal, a falling Moose Vasko reacts with a late tomahawk chop that just misses. And so it went, for the always dangerous Rocket.
Things continued in a promising view over the next few games, as the 4-0-2 Canadiens kept up their winning ways and the Rocket continued to produce. From October 26 to November 9, Montreal played seven games, winning five and losing two. In that span, Richard added four goals and five assists.
During a goalmouth scramble, players tumbled, resulting with Leafs defenseman Marc Reaume stepping on Richard's leg. The slice eventually put the sniper out of action for 42 games, but the prognosis for a complete recovery appeared grim. Whispers around the league were that Richard's career could be threatened and that if he were able to return, he would never quite be the same player.
It was then that trouble struck for Richard on November 13.
Fortunately for the 10-2-2- Canadiens, they would not miss a beat during Richard's convalescence. Over the next 42 games, Montreal would compile a 28-11-7 record, enhancing their hold on first place.
Concerns over the Rocket's premature demise were temporarily assuaged during his return to action on February 20 with the Bruins in town. The Canadiens unleashed a 45 shot barrage at Boston goalie Harry Lumley in a 4-0 win, but the game's hero was Richard, posting a typical two goal performance peppered by a pair of minor penalties.
Over the next 13 games of the schedule until season's end, the Rocket's goal production dipped, as he counted only two markers to go along with 11 assist. His 1957-58 campaign totals read 15-19-34 in 28 games, but were deceiving on the surface. How the Rocket would play in the post season would be the telltale measure of a full recovery.
When the playoffs began on March 25, the Rocket was more than ready. Eager to prove himself once again against longtime rival Detroit, Richard burst from the gate with two goals before the contest was five minutes old. He would later add two assists to complete the 8-1 romp. He followed up that performance two nights later, contributing a pair of third period goals in a 5-1 win. The Canadiens were in the midst of steamrolling the Red Wings, with Richard paving the way.
Scores tightened with the series moving to the Detroit Olympia. In Game Three, a 2-1 Montreal win, Richard helped set up Dickie Moore's tying goal before a Marcel Pronovost marker won it in the third.
Richard saved his best for the series' clincher on April 1. After the Wings' Jack McIntyre opened the scoring five minutes into the second period, the Rocket replied three minutes later, on a highlight goal to draw the score. On the play, Richard drove headlong to the goal and was hauled down by Wings' defender Warren Godfrey. The momentum kept Richard moving fast as he fell, but he managed to pick himself up one on knee to poke the puck past a sprawling Terry Sawchuk.
Fighting for their playoff lives, the Red Wings would not quit. Goals by Gordie Howe and Billy McNeil within the next three minutes brought Detroit to 3-1 and the Canadiens were outshot 18-7 in the middle frame.
As the third period began, it looked as the Canadiens might need a fifth game at the Forum to wrap the series up. Four minutes in, on a Habs power play, Richard netted his second of the game to bring Montreal within one. When indiscipline by Detroit's Pete Goegan provided Montreal with yet another opportunity, Moore tallied, helped by Beliveau and Geoffrion. The Canadiens were now a goal away from dousing their rivals, and they waited no longer than 49 seconds for Richard to net his third of the game to seal the series.
In a repeat of the 1957 Final, the Canadiens moved on to meet the Bruins. Montreal pounded Boston goalie Don Simmons with 44 shots in Game One, squeeking out a 2-1, with Richard setting up Moore's game winner on the power play. As was the case in the opener, the second tilt was a rugged affair, and Boston checkers managed to keep Richrd off the game summary for the first time in the post season. With a 5-2 Bruins victory, the teams headed to Boston with the series tied.
Game Three was a crucial match in the series, and Boston's wheel jammers could only hold the Rocket in check for so long, He set the game's tone late in the first with the game's opening score and contributed another midway through the third to seal a 3-0 win. Boston countered two nights later, shutting Richard down once more to gain a 3-1 victory. The series moved to Montreal tied at two.
A 98 shot barnburner, Game Five would be the series' best game. With both clubs firing over fourty shots, the game went into overtime tied at two. Five minutes and fourty-eight seconds in, the Rocket beat a stellar Simmons on the night, to bring the Canadiens within a win of their third straight Stanley Cup.
Game Six was set for Boston on April 20, and the Canadiens proved to be more ready for it than their Bruins' counterparts. Geoffrion, 46 seconds into the game, stunned Boston with a quick goals. Sixty-eight seconds later, it was the Rocket's turn, and his eleventh marker of the post season sent the Bruins reeling. The teams would trade goals from there as the Habs shot 46 times at Simmons, on the way to claiming the franchise's tenth Stanley Cup.
There was no playoff MVP trophy in the day, but Richard with 11 goals and four assists in ten games would have been a sure bet.
Due to reccuring injuries and age, Richard would never again match the peak performance of the 1958 playoffs. In the 1958-59 campaign, Richard would appear in 42 regular season games,posting 17-21-38 totals, only slightly off a point per game pace. He returned for the final four games of the Cup final against Toronto and did not register a point,
In 1959-60, Richard again missed time, playing in only 51 games. His numbers (19-16-35)were still decent, but well below his personal standard. That post season, he would play in all eight games (1-3-4), captaining the Canadiens to a fifth consecutive Stanley Cup.
On April 12, 1960, Richard would score the final goal of his unparalleled career against Toronto goalie Johnny Bower in Game Three of the finals. While receiving a supportive hand from the Toronto fans, Richard pocketed the puck and handed it to a trainer, giving speculation to an impending retirement.
When asked about it after the game, Richard simply uttered "Just in case."
The following summer, the announcement of Richard's retirement was not forthcoming. When Montreal were due to file their list of protected players, Richard's name remained on it. He appeared at the Canadiens 1960 training camp, and for all intents, seemed to be considering another season. Behind the scenes, the Rocket was in great pain following scrimmages and practices. Secretly, he understood that he was no longer in form to play the way he wished.
Coach Toe Blake, intent to know the Rocket's decision, pushing for an answer as camp progressed. On the morning of September 15, the Canadiens scrimmaged in a red and white game. The Rocket stood out with four goals for his side. Not long after the contest, Blake visited Richard to find him aching and worn down. The coach made the decison that Richard was done, and an announcement was made the following day.
In March of 1960, a weary Maurice Richard sat for an interview and cover story with Sports Illustrated. Many of his looming retirement sentiments were present in his thoughts. A must read for fans of the Rocket.