As of this writing (January 22) no Canadian team would be in the Stanley Cup playoffs, if the season ended today.
For many years, a number of folks have bemoaned the fact that a Stanley Cup has not been won by a Canadian team since 1993 (Montreal). Now the discussion is about qualifying itself for a tournament that admits 16 of its 30 teams.
There are lots of issues to dissect, and lots of time to do it.
For me and now, I stop to recall the last time no Canadian team made the playoffs.
The year was 1970 and at that time there were only two Canadian teams – Montreal and Toronto. Vancouver would start play in the Fall of 1970 and Winnipeg, Quebec, Edmonton, Calgary and Ottawa would not join (through the WHA “merger”, relocation and expansion) until later.
Toronto at that time was in the early stages of its protracted down era. Three years removed from their Stanely Cup in ’67, the Leafs, who the year before qualified for the playoffs but could not save Punch Imlach’s job, fell to last-place in the NHL East and did not qualify for the playoffs. Jim Gregory, who had been an executive with the Toronto Marlboros was named general manager, the first new GM for the Maple Leafs since 1957. Top Toronto scoring players that year were Norm Ullman, Dave Keon, Mike Walton and Ron Ellis. The defense was anchored by Pat Quinn, Jim Dorey, Mike Pelyk and Rick Ley, while goaltending duties were split among Johnny Bower, Bruce Gamble and Marv Edwards. It was not a good season – the Leafs missed the playoffs by 21 points. That they missed the playoffs was little surprise to most. The first of many rebuilds to come was in motion.
In Montreal the story was a different. As the season reached its last week, five of the six teams in the East Division were jockeying for four playoff spots with less than 10 points separating them all. Going into the last weekend, Canadiens (and the others) still could have finished as high as first or out of the playoffs at fifth.
Montreal play Chicago in a home and home that weekend, the Hawks last season in the East before moving to the West Division, and the Hawks were still gunning for a first place finish themselves. Chicago prevailed 4-1 at Montreal on Saturday night.
In their second-last game, Detroit clinched a playoff spot with a 6-2 home win against the Rangers, after having missed the postseason for the past three years. Many of their players were jubilant and were wildly celebrating this accomplishment, despite the fact that they were scheduled to face New York the next afternoon to finish the season. Several Detroit players still had hangovers from last night’s party just hours before they took to the ice against the Rangers.
Entering their last games of the regular season, New York, which had been slumping, were two points behind Canadiens for the final playoff spot. A New York victory and a Montreal loss would have left them tied in points, and the first tiebreaker – number of wins – was also tied. The second tiebreaker was goals scored, and the Canadiens had a five-goal advantage in the “goals for” category. This led to unusual tactics from both teams.
On Sunday afternoon in New York in a nationally televised game, the desperate Rangers scored earaly and never let up, managing 65 shots on Detroit goalie Roger Crozier as they piled up a 9–3 lead early in the third period. Looking for even more goals, Coach Emile Francis repeatedly pulled goalie Ed Giacomin for the extra attacker though this failed to add to the Rangers’ total; in fact this let the Red Wings hit the empty net twice for a 9–5 final score. Nonetheless, however, New York was now equal on points with Montreal and had four more goals for the season.
That left the Montreal at Chicago game Sunday to decide both the division (Chicago/Boston) and the last playoff spot (Montreal/New York). So, unlike the Red Wings, who had nothing else to accomplish in their final game, the Black Hawks were playing for first place in their division. With nearly nine minutes left in the third period and down 5–2 to the Hawks, the Canadiens knew overcoming this 5–2 deficit in 9 minutes was highly unlikely, but they could still make the playoffs if they could score three more goals regardless of the game’s outcome. With 9 minutes and 30 seconds left in the third period, Montreal was down by a score of 5–2. Montreal’s only hope of qualifying for the playoffs was to score three more goals. So coach Claude Ruel removed his goalie, Rogatien Vachon from the net for an extra attacker. Vachon would return to the net only for faceoffs. But Montreal failed to score, Chicago would score five empty net goals and win the game by a score of 10–2.
This is believed to be the longest length of time any team had played without a goalie.
Canadiens, ended the season two goals-for behind the Rangers, were out of the playoffs for the first time in 22 years (Though they finished with a mark of 38-22-16 good for 92 points with a 43 plus differential). They would not miss the playoffs again until 1994-95. They would win the Stanley Cup again the very next year (Ken Dryden’s rookie year and Jean Beliveau’s last), but because of this loss more than afew players that had helped the team win 4 cups in the prior 5 years would no longer be there (Ted Harris, Ralph Backstrom, Bobby Rousseau, Mickey Redmond).
More than a few observers accused Detroit, having already secured a postseason berth and with nowhere to move in the standings, of purposely throwing the game to let the Rangers make the playoffs.
This year is offering a drama of its own for Canadiens’ supporters (The team started the season 9-0 before the season went south in December and January). But this year those supporters can not look to another team to blame.