Jul 212009

My friendship with Dick Irvin goes back a long way. Old-timers around Montreal may recall that we worked together on CFCF-TV when it first went on the air in Montreal in the early 1960s. A few years ago, Dick wrote a fine book, The Habs, in which he describes the most emotional and dramatic event he has covered in more than a quarter-century of broadcasting Montreal games.

Dick says, “It was a playoff series that had everything, an underdog team eliminating the best team in hockey in the first round; an unknown goaltender with six games of NHL experience winning the Conn Smythe Trophy as the playoff MVP; a revered French-Canadian hockey hero publicly criticizing his English-speaking coach, igniting a front-page media war with severe linguistic overtones. Then, as the final curtain fell, one of the Montreal Canadiens’ all-time greatest superstars was carrying the Stanley Cup off the ice at the Chicago Stadium, his final act in what had been the final game of a now-legendary career.”

Halfway through Dick’s summation, any Montreal fan worth his salt realized the esteemed commentator was talking about the 1971 playoffs and a stunning triumph for the Montreal Canadiens.

The underdog team was Montreal, of course, called on to face the mighty Boston Bruins of Orr, Esposito, Cashman and Bucyk in the first round of the playoffs. The Bruins had won the Stanley Cup the year before and would capture it again in 1972. Their 1971 squad was perhaps the strongest of the three finalists, evidenced by their 24-point lead over the Habs during the 1970–71 regular season.

Perhaps the Bruins took the Habs too lightly that spring. After all, the Bruins were the defending champions and the Canadiens hadn’t even made the playoffs the previous season (even though they had accumulated 92 points).

And the Bruins were facing a rookie netminder with six games’ experience under his chest protector — a tall, studious-looking ex-college player with poor eyesight. His name was Dryden — Ken Dryden.

Veteran Johnny Bucyk, who played 21 of his 23 NHL seasons with Boston, recalls approaching that series with confidence, even though, over two decades, none of the Boston teams he played on had won even a single series against the Habs.

It was Dryden who beat us in ’71,” he recalled. “I know we had the better team, but Dryden got hot and beat us.”

Boston superstar Phil Esposito complained that Dryden made saves that were out of this world. “The guy has arms like a giraffe,” Phil testified, and when it was pointed out that giraffes were more noted for their elongated necks than their long arms, he shrugged and said, “Ah, you know what I mean. So we never had a zoo in Sault Ste. Marie, where I grew up.”

Boston goalie Gerry Cheevers, who was keeping notes in his diary at that time for a book called Goaltender, wrote, “Dryden, the budding lawyer, appears to have awfully fast hands. We’ve seen him under fire now and I guess he’ll be around for awhile. For one so young he has remarkable composure. And he has the best left hand I’ve seen since Jacques Plante’s.”

Cheevers and the Bruins almost lost Bobby Orr in game one at Boston. Orr was livid when he drew a penalty and growled something at referee John Ashley, who added 10 minutes to Orr’s time in the box. Orr then leaped from the box (“You’d have thought somebody had lanced his ass with a six-inch needle,” wrote Cheevers) and tried to get at Ashley. But the linesmen intercepted him and three or four Bruins herded him to the dressing room, saving him from a game misconduct and a suspension.

Cheevers, Esposito, Bucyk and the rest of the Bruins would later agree that game two was the turning point in the series. After Boston captured the first game, 3–1, in front of Cheevers, Boston coach Tom Johnson switched to goalie Eddie Johnston (the second-guessers said it was a big mistake) for game two. The Bruins flew into a 5–1 lead. Then Beliveau, in his final season, rallied the Habs as he had done so often in the past. Late in the second period, Henri Richard scored and there was hope. Montreal lit up the third period with five straight goals to win 7–5. Dryden made so many incredible saves that Esposito finally stood next to him, staring at him, then skated away, shaking his head in disbelief and frustration.

Backup goalie Cheevers figured Beliveau and Richard, with 74 years between them, acted like there was some kind of law against anybody but Montreal winning the Cup. “Those Frenchmen go slightly glassy-eyed when they get thinking of their tradition and their pride and all the rest of that bullshit,” he said. “Then they suddenly acquire adrenaline not available to other teams.”

Cheevers displayed his edginess when the series switched to Montreal. A young boy holding a dog on a leash taunted him outside the Boston team bus. “Hey, Cheevers,” he said, “we gonna beat you Bruins tomorrow.” Cheevers snarled back, “Shut up, kid, or I’ll cut the balls off your dog.”

On the Forum ice, the Canadiens won again, 3–1. Dryden made a save off Esposito that drew the ultimate compliment from the Boston sniper. “It was the greatest save anybody made off me,” said Espo. “The best one ever.”

Dryden, down on his knees, followed the puck across the crease to his right. Just then, Cashman flipped the puck over to Esposito standing in front of the net and Espo saw four or five feet of open net. He whipped the puck into the hole and it disappeared — right into Dryden’s glove. Superman couldn’t have reacted any faster. Cheevers called it “an amazing feat of dexterity.”

The Bruins won game four, 5–2, and rained rubber at Dryden in game five — 23 shots in the first period, 12 in the second and 21 more in the third — as they coasted to a 5–3 victory. But Dryden bounced back with another solid effort in game six and the Habs rolled to a surprise 8–3 win to tie the series at three games apiece.

Dryden’s composure throughout the series worried Cheevers. He noticed that the rookie, between flurries around his net, rested on one foot and placed the point of his goal stick on the ice. Then he rested his chin on his gloves at the knob of the stick, as relaxed as a guy watching a ballet. Cheevers would say, “Dryden picked one hell of a time to play the best goal of his life. The long-legged sonofabitch was robbing us of a lot of goals — and a lot of money.”

The Canadiens went on to eliminate the Bruins, a team that had set 37 team records during the regular season, with a 4–2 triumph in game seven. It was a huge playoff upset. Cheevers was tempted to join the lineup of players shaking hands when it was over. He wanted to tell Dryden, the big giraffe, that he had done a masterful job. But Cheevers said to hell with it. He had never congratulated anyone in the past for taking money out of his pocket and he wasn’t about to change his style. Instead, back in the Bruins dressing room, he took Jacques Beauchamp, a Montreal reporter, aside and said, “Jacques, you tell that kid he had a hell of a series. Give him my best.”

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