30 Years Ago: The 1986 Stanley Cup Champion Montreal Canadiens

A look back at the Habs' 23rd conquest of the National Hockey League.

30 years ago, on May 24, 1986, the Montreal Canadiens captured their 23rd Stanley Cup by defeating the Calgary Flames. It was an unexpected win, as the Canadiens were not considered among the favourites, but rather the Edmonton Oilers were expected to continue their reign. Fate would have other plans however.

The Oilers were eliminated by the Flames after Steve Smith scored the own-goal heard around the world, handing the series to Calgary. In the meantime, Montreal were led by a couple of unheralded rookies who took the hockey scene by storm, supported by a cast of future hall-of-famers.

The Canadiens rolled into the 1985-86 season on the heels of inconsistent results in the preceding seasons. There were three consecutive strong regular seasons from 1980-81 to 1982-83, which were stopped short with disappointing first-round exits from the playoffs. A terrible 1983-84 campaign saw the Canadiens finish with their worst regular season since the 1967 expansion, only 75 points, yet they managed to go all the way to the semi-finals. In 1984-85, they returned to a strong regular season, but fell in the second round of the playoffs.

By 1985-86 the great Montreal Canadiens of the 1970's were on their final legs. The top line of Jacques Lemaire, Steve Shutt, and Guy Lafleur was gone, as both Lafleur and Shutt retired only a season earlier, and Lemaire, after a failed two-season stint behind the Habs bench, left the organization rather acrimoniously (and is yet to heal that wound).

Larry Robinson was the last of the Big Three defensive unit to remain active. Guy Lapointe played out his final two seasons in St. Louis and Boston, retiring after the 1983-84 season, while Serge Savard retired after the 1980-81 season, to be named the General Manager of the Montreal Canadiens in 1983.

Savard inherited an aging team, and he knew that it would require a new wave of players to be the heirs apparent to the legacy of the 1970's Habs, and it was through the draft that he was going to do it. In the three drafts preceding the 1985-86 season, Savard selected Claude Lemieux, Patrick Roy, Stéphane Richer, John Kordic, Shayne Corson, and Petr Svoboda. All of these players would make important contributions to the Canadiens 1986 Championship run, but first some of them conquered the Calder Cup with the Sherbrooke Canadiens of the American Hockey League in 1985. The list of players on both championship squads included: Roy, Brian Skrudland, Richer, Gaston Gingras, Mike Lalor, Kordic, Serge Boisvert, and Randy Bucyk.

Interestingly enough, the 1985 Calder Cup champion team also included current Montreal Canadiens head coach Michel Therrien.

Savard also made an important trade to help craft the 1986 Championship team. In his first big move as general manager in 1983, Savard traded forwards Mark Napier and Keith Acton to the Minnesota North Stars for disgruntled forward Bobby Smith. Smith was a big centre, drafted first overall by the North Stars in 1978, helping them to their one and only Stanley Cup final appearance. It was a great trade for the Canadiens, as Napier and Acton hit their peaks several seasons prior, while Smith arrived in the prime of his career, adding size and skill down the middle for the Canadiens.

The team was helmed by rookie head coach Jean Perron, whose only coaching experience was the season prior as Jacques Lemaire's assistant. Although his stint would end up short and tumultuous, history will always tell the story of how a team stocked with rookies, playing under a rookie coach did the unexpected, and conquered the National Hockey League.

Adams Division Semi-Final - Boston Bruins

It is hardly the NHL playoffs without a series between the Montreal Canadiens and the Boston Bruins, two rivals who are destined to fight each other forever. In fact one of their more iconic battles happened at the start of the 1985-86 when an all-out brawl spilled out into the hallway.

The first-round matchup ended up being a spirited but quick best-of-five series, as the Canadiens dispatched the Bruins in three straight games. They were led by Lemieux (three goals and two assists), Naslund (one goal and four assists), and Smith (two goals and two assists).

Meanwhile, rookie goaltender Patrick Roy shone with a 0.923 save percentage, outperforming his counterpart Bill Ranford. The Bruins were their own worst enemy, taking nine minor penalties in the first game, and were never able to recover. Two goals by Captain Bob Gainey in the third period of game three sealed it for the Habs, and sent them to the next round.

  • Game 1: Montreal 3 - Boston 1 (GWG - Bobby Smith)
  • Game 2: Montreal 3 - Boston 2 (GWG - Claude Lemieux)
  • Game 3: Montreal 4 - Boston 3 (GWG - Bob Gainey)/

Adams Division Final - Hartford Whalers

The Whalers surprised the Adams Division champion Québec Nordiques, sweeping them in three games to reach the second round, and a date with the Habs. The Whalers were riding high off of big seasons for Kevin Dineen, Ron Francis, and Ray Ferraro. The two teams battled it out, and neither team was able to establish dominance in the series, which was back and forth all the way until the seventh and final game.

Guy Carbonneau scored an impressive five goals during these seven games, but it was Claude Lemieux's deciding goal on Mike Liut in overtime, his third of the series, that is best remembered. Patrick Roy was a 'mere' 0.917 save percentage in this series.

  • Game 1: Hartford 4 - Montreal 1
  • Game 2: Montreal 3 - Hartford 1 (GWG: Guy Carbonneau)
  • Game 3: Montreal 4 - Hartford 1 (GWG: Stephane Richer)
  • Game 4: Hartford 2 - Montreal 1
  • Game 5: Montreal 5 - Hartford 3 (GWG: Mike Lalor)
  • Game 6: Hartford 1 - Montreal 0
  • Game 7: Montreal 2 - Hartford 1 (OT) (GWG: Claude Lemieux) (2)/

Prince of Wales Conference Final - New York Rangers

On the heels of two unexpected series wins against the mighty Philadelphia Flyers and Washington Capitals, the New York Rangers were the Cinderella story of the playoffs thus far, led by former Canadien Pierre Larouche. However, Montreal just kept on rolling, beating the Rangers in five games, thanks to Chris Chelios (one goal and four assists), Bobby Smith (three goals and an assist), and Claude Lemieux (two goals and two assists).

Patrick Roy was lights out with a 0.924 save percentage, including a 44-save performance in Game three, in which Claude Lemieux scored another game winner in overtime.

  • Game 1: Montreal 2 - Rangers 1 (GWG: Bob Gainey) (2)
  • Game 2: Montreal 6 - Rangers 2 (GWG: Mike McPhee)
  • Game 3: Montreal 4 - Rangers 3 (OT) (GWG: Claude Lemieux) (3)
  • Game 4: Rangers 2 - Montreal 0
  • Game 5: Montreal 3 - Rangers 1 (GWG: Bobby Smith) (2)/

Stanley Cup Final - Calgary Flames

Calgary easily beat the Winnipeg Jets to earn a matchup against the Oilers, and the result was expected to be a foregone conclusion. However the Flames, led by Lanny McDonald, Al McInnis, and Joe Mullen had other plans. They took the Oilers to the limit in a seven game series, and with the game tied late in the third period, one of the most unforgettable moments in Canadian hockey occurred...

The Flames moved on in a shocking upset over the Oilers to compete in yet another gruelling seven game series against the St. Louis Blues, coached by one Jacques Demers. By the time they got to the Finals, the Flames had played 17 games to the Canadiens 15.

This was the first all-Canadian final in 19 seasons, and the Flames were full of confidence that it was their destiny to win the Cup. The first game went a long way to solidify their belief, as the Flames easily defeated the Habs. However, the series turned to favour the Canadiens the very next game, and they never looked back.

Down 2-0 early in the second period, Gaston Gingras scored an unassisted goal to bring the Habs within one, and three minutes into the third David Maley tied it up. The two teams went to overtime, and it didn't take long for the Canadiens to seal the victory when Brian Skrudland scored the fastest overtime goal in NHL history, only nine seconds into the extra frame.

The series shifted to the Montreal Forum, and the Habs won both games. Claude Lemieux scored yet another game winning goal, his fourth of the playoffs, shutting out the Flames 1-0 in game four.

The fifth and final game was played in Calgary in front of packed house hoping to see a heroic comeback, but the Canadiens stood tall. Wand with Bobby Smith's seventh goal of the playoffs, the Stanley Cup was coming back to Montreal.

  • Game 1: Calgary 5 - Montreal 2
  • Game 2: Montreal 3 - Calgary 2 (GWG: Brian Skrudland)
  • Game 3: Montreal 5 - Calgary 3 (GWG: Bob Gainey) (3)
  • Game 4: Montreal 1 - Calgary 0 (GWG: Claude Lemieux) (4)
  • Game 5: Montreal 4 - Calgary 3 (GWG: Bobby Smith) (3)/

Having just played 10 games during the regular season with the Canadiens, rookie Claude Lemieux scored ten goals, four game winners, and six assists. He was nothing short of excellent, but it was Patrick Roy who emerged as a superstar-in-the-making, winning his first Conn Smythe trophy. His overall save percentage ended up being 0.923, and his goals against average was an unreal 1.92. He played in all 20 games, never once ceding the crease during the entire run.

The 1985-86 season gave all fans hope that the team was on it's way back to perennial contender status, and for a brief moment all was right in Montreal again. But few could have predicted that it would be another seven years before they would taste victory again.

Fewer still could have predicted the unprecedented drought that would follow, and is still ongoing.

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