A couple of us along press row at the Bell Centre Saturday afternoon had that ‘deja vu’ feeling as they watched the Canadiens unravel in Game One of the Eastern Conference final against the Rangers.
We had seen it before. Twice. Once against the Rangers in the 1979 Stanley Cup final and in 2010 against Philadelphia in the Eastern Final. Everything worked out fine for Habs fans in 1979; not so fine in the series against the Flyers four years ago.
Most fans recollection of the playoffs 35 years ago end with the “too many men” game against Boston in the semi-final. But they still had to meet the New York Rangers to win the Cup and, like this year’s series opener against them, things did not start well. While the Canadiens had come off their gut-wrenching seven game series against Boston three days earlier, the Rangers. led by goaltender John Davidson had a much easier time in disposing of the New York Islanders in six games. The series opened on a Mother’s Day Sunday afternoon at the Forum and things did not go well.
It started with, but was not limited to, Ken Dryden in goal. The Rangers led 2-0 at the end of the first period on goals by Steve Vickers and Ron Greschner. Guy Lafleur made it 2-1 in the second, but two minutes later Phil Esposito gave the Rangers back their two goal lead and before the second period was over Ranger defenseman Dave Maloney scored shorthanded and Dryden was hearing the boos after allowing 4 goals on only 14 shots. Scotty Bowman replaced him with Bunny Larocque in the third period and announced that, for the first time in 64 playoff games, Larocque would start Game Two of the series.
Famously, in the Game Two warmup Doug Risebrough hit Larocque between the eyes with a deflected shot knocking him cold and sending him to hospital with a concussion. Bowman had no choice but to put Dryden back in goal.
Mentally unprepared Dryden gave up two goals to start the Game Two, but settled in and the Canadiens scored six straight on Davidson and won the game 6-2, their first of four straight en route to their 22nd Stanley Cup. (With Laroque in hospital, rookie Richard Sevigny, who had never played in an NHL game, was Dryden’s backup and wound up with his named etched on the Stanley Cup for the only time in his career).
Four years ago, the Canadiens found themselves in the same situation with a less happy result. In 2010, the Habs electrified Montreal with back to back comeback seven game series wins against first the Washington Capitals and then the heavily favoured Pittsburgh Penguins. In a repeat of 1979, they came up absolutely flat in the opening game of the Eastern Final against the Philadelphia Flyers. Jaroslav Halak had carried the Canadiens through two rounds but the magic ended. But, like Dryden in 1979 and Price on Saturday, Halak had a brutal night giving up 4 goals on 13 shots before Carey Price came on to mop up what became a 6-0 embarrassment.
Unlike the Canadiens of 1979, their 2010 counterpart didn’t have 10 Hall of Famers on the roster. There was to be no bounce back. The Flyers won the first three games of the series by a combined score of 13-2. The Habs won game four but bowed out in Game Five and the Flyers went on to lose to Chicago in six games in the Stanley Cup final.
So which will it be in 2014? The rebound of the 1979 series or the total collapse of 2010? As it was in the other two series, the self-induced pressure is on the Canadiens.