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Gerry McNeil turns away a Red Wings Shot in game 7 of the Stanley Cup finals
When former iconic bench boss, Dick Irvin Sr., was asked for his definition of sudden death overtime, he responded with: “When you team gets the first goal, it’s sudden; but when the opponent gets it, it’s death!”
Three weeks ago, Alex Prewitt put it this way: “Triumph or Torture?” Either one spells the agony of the team who are the losers in this scenario. But the ultimate decisive moment comes when the seventh game in the Stanley Cup final is determined in that manner. Not only the game; not only the series; but the entire season hangs on a single tally—determining who gets all the marbles—with no tomorrow—no second chances.
That precise scenario has only happened twice in NHL history. There have been 41 instances between 1939 and 2018 when series have gone down to the wire in quarter finals, semi-finals, Division finals and Conference finals—but only twice in the finals, when it all came down to that nerve-shattering moment.
As this is being penned, there have been three cases of preliminary count-downs this season, where the decision of which teams advance to the next round, has gone right down to the wire. The Sharks took that fatal bite out of the Golden Knights; and in two instances, double overtime was required for Carolina to eliminate Washington, and the Blues to earn a 2-1 victory over the Stars.
From day one until 1938-39, the NHL has utilized a mixed bag of elimination formats. (This essay will not include Stanley Cup series involving the early PCHA and WHL competition with the NHL) Several post-season competitions counted total goals as the deciding factor. Some seasons there was a combination of total-goals and best-of-five set-ups.
A couple of notable exceptions went into the books. Strangely enough, in the circuit’s second year there was a best of seven challenge; with the Canadiens defeating Ottawa 4 games to 1 in the NHL final.
Then, for two years running, in 1929 and 1930, some preliminary rounds featured the best of five—but the Cup finals were the best of three arrangements. There were no second chances with that set-up either.
There have been five occasions when a single tally in the seventh game, which did not go into overtime, decided the Cup winner. The initial instance was on April 22, 1945. The Maple Leafs outlasted the Red Wings 2-1 in that classic.
Right in their own back yard, the Motor City Six saw the Buds take the lead just past the 5-minute mark of the first period. Mel Hill, who had earned his enduring moniker, “Sudden Death”, a handful of seasons previously, was “Johnny-on-the-Spot” again. In a low-scoring tilt, that marker stood until Murray Armstrong knotted the count at 8:16 of the final frame. “Babe” Pratt, who was better known for his “Peck’s Badboy” stance, came through with the winner at 12:14, with Syd Howe sitting in the penalty box. Pratt, who had been considered the player upon whom the team’s fortunes rise and fell, rose to the occasion. He had been noted for his grit and determination throughout the entire contest—and at that moment his efforts counted most. It spelled “finis” for the club which finished with 15 points more than their opponents.
To hear of the Montreal Canadiens being referred to as “underdogs’ seems like a misnomer. But when the snow was cleared away from the Forum ice on May 18, 1971, the favourites—the Chicago Blackhawks—were headed home with their tales between their legs. With the series tied three games each, the showdown was front and centre. Until midway through the second period the sextet from the Windy City held a 2-0 lead. Jacques Lemaire cut the lead in half. A graying Henri Richard got the tying marker, then added the winner, to bring the final tally to 3-2.
Jacques Laperierre and goalie Ken Dryden shared the spotlight honours. The former played with a broken arm—an injury which took place in game two. His limb was taped from wrist to elbow for every match. Ken Dryden, the rookie netminder, was just a little bit more than phenomenal. One particular save in the final frame was remembered by all who saw it. Jim Pappin essentially has a clear shot—but Dryden’s big pad shot out and stoned him. He made 31 saves to Tony Esposito’s 22. He welcomed the tributes displayed by being awarded the Conn Smythe Trophy. If there was an anti-climax, it was the much publicized clash between the Pocket Rocket and bench boss Al MacNeil—whom he tagged as an “incompetent coach”! The latter had his NHL coaching job taken away from him less than a month after the game.
The 1994 victory by the Rangers over the Canucks featured a tension-filled game seven. The winning goal was not scored in the usual tie-breaking manner; but there was still a heart-stopping climax to it all. The New Yorkers had actually gone ahead at 13:29 of the middle frame, with Captain Mark Messier potting the goal which turned out to be the winner. Trevor Linden put the Canucks within one; and it was a matter of hanging on until the final whistle. Unbelievably, Vancouver had hit the post twice in an effort to catch up—but it was not to be.
Perhaps the most meaningful highlight was not on the ice. Mark Messier, who had uttered that famous boast during the previous series against the Devils: “….We can win it and we are going to win it!” This spirit carried over into the finals, with his memorable 15-minute pep-talk to his peers. Coach Mike Keenan said he had never heard anything like it before. The press, always looking for angle, made a big thing about the supposed 54-year-old “curse”, uttered by former league President “Red” Dutton, claiming the Broadway Blueshirts would never win another Cup as long as he was alive!
It seems the fallout of that spell still lingered for seven years after his passing.
Brad Richards of the Champion Tampa Bay Lightning was rewarded for his efforts during the 2004 post-season tournament. He scored or assisted on 10 of the 16 game-winning goals. But it was Ruslan Fedotenko who was the hero in the deciding game of the Finals. He bulged the twine twice, giving the Lightning a 2-0 lead—while the team hung on through the rest of the match to cop the Cup. Calgary’s Craig Conroy tallied at 9:21 of the third, but it was too-little-too-late! A charging penalty to Andrew Ference with 60 seconds left in the contest appeared to douse any chances of a Flames’ comeback, though a tripping penalty to Dave Andreychuk with 23 seconds left may have reignited the team, albeit too late.
For captain Andreychuk it was a dream come true. After 22 seasons with six teams, he finally got his name etched in the game’s most cherished hardware. In a light-hearted moment he responded to the query: “What did you think of while skating around the ice with Lord Stanley’s famous trophy?”
“Don’t drop it!”, he grinned.
The Pittsburgh Penguins caught the brass ring two seasons in succession — 1991 and 1992. They were back in stride in 2009 when they outlasted the Detroit Red Wings for their major hockey triumph. This was the first time they needed the seventh and deciding match to turn the trick. Some faux pas by the Wings’ defenseman, Brad Stuart, the “breathtaking” efforts of goalie Marc-Andre Fleury, and the unexpected scoring of Maxime Talbot, enabled the Pens to take the silver chalice back to the Steel City. “Maxime put on the cape (Superman’s)” that night was the quip made by Coach Dan Bylsma. He lit the lamp twice to give Pittsburgh the 2-0 lead. The only other tally was by Jon Ericsson of the Wings. Detroit pulled their goalie for a sixth attacker, but when the closest call came, it almost backfired — Nicklas Lindstrom to the rescue with his stick, to prevent a third Penquin score.
Before we focus our candid camera on the two exclusive situations mentioned earlier; it is worth taking a quick peek at three other memorable Stanley Cup playoffs involving seven games.
The initial contest involves seven for a different reason; it was the first final series that was a best-of-seven arrangement. Played on April 9, 1939, it was the only contest the Maple Leafs managed to gain victory over the Boston Bruins. Murph “Hard Rock” Chamberlain and Syl Apps gave the visitors a 2-0 lead before the Hub sextet got on the board. Roy Conacher, the best of the Beantowners that night, got one back, followed by Mel Hill’s tally to tie the score.
At 10:37 of the extra frame, “Doc” Romnes, the Blackhawk’s gift to the Queen City crew, popped one by the acrobatic Brimsek for the victory. Manager Smythe praised Chamberlain for his overall effort. Coach Dick Irvin Sr. credited a pair of pigeons shipped to him from a friend in the USA, as the “good luck charm” that did the trick. “Every time someone sends me pigeons (his hobby), we win!” He should have made an appeal for more such gratuities.
It has been said “There have been a lot of odd moments which have ended games (but the one on May 10, 1979) is one of the top five—if not number one!”
“Unforgettable” is one description which fits well. The Bruins and Canadiens were knotted at three games each in the semi-final set. Boston had, at one time, held a 3-1 lead. But Captain Yvan Cournoyer gave his mates a pep talk during the first intermission—which worked. Mark Napier and Guy Lapointe responded to tie the match at 3-3. With less than four minutes left in the contest, the Hub’s Rick Middleton launched them into what seemed like a fairly safe lead. But then tragedy struck. Coach Don Cherry has always taken the blame for the “too many men” violation; but where the fault lay was a moot point. Scotty Bowman dispatched his top power-play unit. With 74 seconds remaining, Guy Lafleur tallied one of the most important goals of his career.
Overtime loomed, and descended. Just over nine minutes in that extra frame, Serge Savard intercepted an errant pass—slipped to Rejean Houle, who relayed it to Mario Tremblay. The last pass went to Yvan Lambert, who buried the disc behind a devastated Gilbert. He sadly announced that while “he had lost before, this was the roughest!” Harry Sinden fired “Grapes” a short while later.
What a way to celebrate one’s 23rd birthday! One of the most publicized blunders in NHL post-season history took place on April 30, 1986. During the course of action the Calgary Flames slipped the puck into Oilers’ territory, where goalie Grant Fuhr trapped it and dropped it in the path of rookie defenseman, Steve Smith. Casually he fired it diagonally toward a forward breaking out of the zone. But it hit Fuhr in the back of the pad and bounced behind him into the net. It turned out to be the winning goal for Red & Gold sextet, ousting Edmonton from further action in the playoffs. The tally was recorded at 5:14 of the third period. And even a last minute power play failed to get that badly-needed tying third goal.
No one who saw it will ever forget the devastation of the young rear-guard, as he fell face first to the ice in frustration. Tears are not uncommon in tension-filled moments in Canada’s National Sport — mainly demonstrated in elation—but in this case it was an expression of agony.
There have been 16 seventh games in NHL Finals history, since the best-of-seven format came into play. But, as initially noted — only two have been decided in sudden-death overtime. On April 13, 1950, hockey history was made. Detroit Red Wings and New York Rangers were out of options when the last game of the best-of-seven Stanley Cup final went right down the wire: three wins each; three goals each after three periods of play—the first marker in extra time would tell the tale.
The Rangers were the Cinderella squad of that campaign. They just barely squeezed into the post-season, and then surprisingly disposed of the Canadiens, 4 games to 1. To battle through to victory against the first-place Motor City crew three times, was another unexpected triumph. Don Raleigh had tallied in overtime in games three and four, to go ahead in the elimination; while the Wings just squeaked by 5-4 in game six.
Detroit needed an earlier seventh game in overtime to send their first-round opponent, the Maple Leafs, packing. An unlikely pinch-hitter, Leo Reise had pulled that series out of the fire. So now the stage was set for the nail-biting climax.
Rangers got the first two in the initial frame, and looked to be on their way to victory. But reserve forward, Pete Babando started the Wing’s comeback. After Sid Abel first tied the score and Buddy O’Connor gave the Rangers the lead back, Jim McFadden knotted the count in the second period — with no scoring in the third or in the first overtime. Then at 8:31 of O.T. number two, there was a faceoff to goalie Chuck Rayner’s right. George Gee had instructed the aforementioned Babando to stand to his right. His instincts paid off: the disc went right to Pete, who took one stride, and fired a back-hander past the startled goalie.
It is interesting to realize that Babando was still recovering from a slow-healing hand injury, and had spent time in the press box in the Toronto series. In fact he wondered if his season was over before this opportunity presented itself. He also had wondered about his future with Detroit. And indeed, he was rewarded by a trade to Chicago before the next schedule got underway. But that night he was the toast of the town.
As Yogi Berra once said, “It was déjà vu all over again” — on April 16, 1954. The second and only other scenario of this kind went into the NHL’s archives. Detroit was front and centre once again. They had eliminated Toronto 4 games to 1. Montreal had breezed by the Bruins 4 games to 0. This pitted the top two regular-season big boys against one another—gunning for all the marbles. The Red Wings had bested the Habs 3 games to 1, before the Bleu Blanc et Rouge battled back to knot the series — setting the stage for the showdown in the deciding match.
Everyone likes to see a clean goal when it comes to the winner. But when the fate of the entire season rests on it, it is even more demoralizing when it is a fluke marker. At 4:29 of the first overtime, little Tony “Mighty Mouse” Leswick, another unheralded skater, lofted a 35-footer which hit defensemen Doug Harvey’s glove and bounced over goalie Gerry McNeil’s shoulder to sink the Habs’ ship with the 2-1 triumph. The perennial all-star admitted that he tried to bat the drive down; and McNeil said he had his sights on it until it changed directions and beat him.
Harvey, who played semi-pro baseball in the off-season committed the error of a lifetime. He never got his hit; because that was his plan after knocking the shot down—to bat it away to safety. And his only run was straight to the locker room. The team, led by Coach Dick Irvin Sr. (who said if he couldn’t shake hands sincerely, he wouldn’t do it at all) forsook the traditional congratulatory routine.
Leswick admitted that he just let a blooper go as he headed off for a change. But the result was the same. As the Motor City Six celebrated in the dressing room, Ted “Scarface” Lindsay, kissed the 133-pound Leswick, playfully calling him a “little toad”! But, like Babando, his reward was being traded — to Chicago, no less – but at least he got one more season in Detroit.
It’s hardly necessary to conduct a survey among teams in the playoffs, to realize none of them ever hope to find themselves in that all or nothing dilemma which faced the Rangers and Canadiens almost seven decades ago. “Sudden”, and “death” indeed!
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