Sep 202010

A Wild and Wacky Season Finish

Can you believe the Montreal Canadiens once considered starting a game without a goaltender?

Impossible, you say? Well, listen to this.

On the final day of the 1969-70 NHL season, the Canadiens faced the Chicago Blackhawks at the Chicago Stadium. That season finale has often been called “the wildest game in NHL history.”

It was farcical but fun to watch.

On the final day of the 1969-70 season, the battle to win a playoff berth was so close that any one of four teams–Chicago, Boston, Detroit or Montreal–could finish as high as first place or as low as fifth.

The duel for first place was between the Hawks and the Bruins. Detroit finished third after losing to the Rangers in an afternoon game. Now fourth place would go to either New York or Montreal, depending on how Montreal fared against the Hawks.

The Hawks badly wanted first place because they had finished deep in the league basement in the previous season.  Never before had a team roared from last place to first in one year.

When they took the ice against the Habs, the Hawks kept glancing up at the out-of-town scoreboard. If Boston should beat Toronto in another matchup, the Hawks would be in a must-win situation against Montreal.

But there was much more pressure on the Habs that night. The Habs found themselves in desperate straits after they learned the Rangers had walloped Detroit 8-3 a few hours earlier. Because the Rangers finished their season tied in points with Montreal, it meant the Habs must win or tie the Black Hawks. And if they lost to Chicago, Montreal would have to score at least five goals to surpass the Rangers’ goal total. In that era, when two teams wound up tied in points, then the team with the most goals over the season would earn the playoff berth. Get it?

Prior to Montreal’s crucial game with Chicago, Habs’ coach Claude Ruel, a chubby little guy who was blind in one eye, actually considered starting the game at the Chicago Stadium–without a netminder! He figured the Hawks would open up a big lead shooting into the Habs’ empty net. Then Chicago’s top players would be given a rest and Ruel’s Habs would go on to score at least five goals against rookie goaltender Tony Esposito.

Ruel came close to making a travesty of the game. I’m sure Toe Blake, Jean Beliveau and others told him to forget about the cock-eyed strategy. The media and the fans would be all over him.

As game time approached, Ruel came to his senses and nixed the bizarre move. He realized keeping goalie Rogie Vachon on the bench would be handing the Hawks first place on a platter. He also realized it would cost the Bruins a chance to finish on top and Boston fans would be ready to lynch him.

Ruel was in a tough position. To ask his players to score five times against Tony Esposito—a goalie Montreal had owned and let go—was asking a lot. But the margin might have been more. In the afternoon contest, New York had pulled goalie Ed Giacomin when leading 8-3 in an effort to score two or three more goals.

When the Chicago-Montreal game got underway, the out-of-town scoreboard indicated that Boston, playing in an earlier time zone, would defeat the Leafs. Now the situation was clearer. The Hawks knew that first place was theirs — if they could defeat the Habs.

In the third period, Chicago was leading Montreal 3-2 on goals by Jim Pappin, Pit Martin and Bobby Hull. Suddenly, Martin scored two more goals and the game was virtually out of Montreal’s reach.

Ruel’s priority then became goals, not points. His Habs needed three more scores–and in a big hurry. There were nine minutes left on the clock when Ruel stunned the crowd by yanking Rogie Vachon. He was conceding first place to the Hawks. He didn’t care how many goals the Hawks scored. His players must score three or they were done like dinner.

Despite the extra attacker, the Habs displayed hands of stone. They failed to get one decent shot on Esposito in almost half a period of hockey.

Meanwhile, the Hawks gleefully pumped goal after goal into Montreal’s empty net . The fans whooped it up when Eric Nesterenko, Cliff Koroll, Bobby Hull. Dennis Hull and Gerry Pinder all found the inviting target. At the buzzer, the score was 10-2. The Canadiens skated off in a daze, their playoff hopes squashed.

It was a bizarre moment in NHL history. In the off-season, the rules were changed to make team goal scoring irrelevant to the order of finish in the NHL standings.

The game is well-remembered for other reasons. The incredible finish saw a team score five empty net goals in a nine minute span–a hockey first. For the first time in history a team had soared from last place to first. Also for the first time, no Canadian team was part of the Stanley Cup playoffs.

You may wonder how the Blackhawks, with 99 points, fared in the 1970 playoffs. In the first round, they ousted Detroit in four straight games and by the same score each time–4-2. Then they ran into real grief against the Bruins and were swept in four straight. The Bruins went on to meet St. Louis in the finals and eliminated the expansion team in four games. The Bruins of Orr, Esposito and Cheevers captured the Stanley Cup with Orr providing the winning goal in overtime as he was pitchforked into the air by the Blues’ Noel Picard.

Everybody remembers Orr’s famous goal and the remarkable photo of it. But few will recall the bizarre series of circumstances leading up to it.

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