2009-06-12

“Whoever wins, Wins”



I was 8 years old that spring of 1964 when I coined that phrase. It was my second Stanley Cup playoffs, and a memorable one. After the Leafs had rolled to the Cup in just 10 games in ’63 -- have I mentioned I'm old? I can recall the Leafs actually winning -- the next year things were a lot tighter. All three series (TOR-MTL, DET-CHI and then TOR-DET) were rematches, all three had the same result, but this time all three went 7 games. After the Leafs and Habs had split the first six games, my emerging mathematical mind realized that whoever won the next game, won the series. My uncharacteristically concise observation became synonymous with “Game 7” in our household for many years.

It’s particularly true when the Game 7 in question is in the Stanley Cup Finals. One for all the marbles. It’s an exciting time to be a hockey fan; even if you don’t care about the two teams involved, you care about that silver mug and you want to see whose history will be engraved on it.

This is my 46th Stanley Cup final series (an official majority of the 91 that have been played since the NHL was formed in 1917, and yes, I do feel old, thanks for asking). It is just the tenth in my time to reach Game 7. They might seem commonplace to newer, younger fans of Gary Bettman’s House of Parity, but there has been an odd distribution over the years:

1960s - 2
1970s - 1
1980s - 1
1990s - 1
2000s – 5

It’s a rare enough thing, which was especially true during dynastic times as the true powerhouses tend to end things in 6 or less. Sweeps were grossly more common than seven-gamers. The five-in-a-row Habs lost just 5 Finals games over those 5 years with only one series making it to Game 6. The four-in-a-row Habs of the late 70s lost just 3 games, and the four-in-a-row Islanders that directly followed also lost just 3 games, with each team playing (and winning) a single Game 6. The Oilers of 1983-90 got swept in their first series, then won 5 Cups with only a 7-game classic with the Flyers in 1987 requiring more than 5 games to mop up. Those Oilers lost just 3 games total in their other 4 Cup triumphs. Similarly, today’s long-standing dynasty in the Motor City got swept in a first visit to the Finals back in ’95, but have quickly disposed of subsequent opponents, losing just 3 games over their 4 successful Cup Finals. Until this year ... and tonight.

Rarer still is a 7th game overtime, which has occurred only twice, 1950 and 1954, with the Red Wings prevailing both times. The unlikely heroes were Pete Babando and Tony Leswick, both of whom are famous for no other reason. The pestiferous Leswick’s fluke goal off the glove of the great Doug Harvey could only be duplicated if Matt Cooke bounced one in off of Nick Lidstrom in OT tonight. Ugh. That one had to be tough for Habs fans to swallow ... sorry I missed it!

But since I tuned in a decade later, I watch the Stanley Cup Finals intently, every year, whether my team is in or out. In this era of many Games 7, I usually have a mild rooting interest but (2006 aside) don’t really care who wins, but am keen to see how things turn out. The Game is the thing, and by now I’ve watched well over 200 SCF games, 15 of them in person. The funny thing is how after all these years the memories of those games, especially Games 7, remain sharp. The garburetor that passes for my brain retains a torrent of game scores, goal scorers, goal times, situations, stats, factoids, mental replays ... This walk down memory lane doesn’t require hockey-reference.com – but if you find an error, please let me know. :D

1964: Detroit 0 @ Toronto 4
The first Game 7 in 9 years provided a somewhat anticlimactic end to a great series which featured 6 close games, including 2 overtimes and 2 others decided in the last minute of regulation. The coup de grace was delivered by Bob Baun, whose shock overtime goal in Game 6 had silenced an Olympia crowd expecting the Cup. That Baun was playing on a broken leg at the time is now the stuff of legend. Baun, broken leg and all, went on to play Game 7; when asked if he would get an Xray, he replied “no, if it's bad news I don't want to hear it; I have a game to play”. (Bob Baun was Lee Fogolin, Craig Muni, and Jason Smith all rolled into one.) His leg held up, and so did the Leaf defence in smothering the Wings. Andy Bathgate, acquired from the Rangers in a blockbuster trade earlier that season, scored on an early breakaway and Johnny Bower made it stand up against Gordie Howe and Co. The Leafs scored three in the third to finally break it open.

1965: Chicago 0 @ Montreal 4
This was a homer series and an extreme one at that. Montreal outscored Chicago 15-2 in the Forum, with the Hawks failing to score again after a 3-2 loss in Game 1. In Chicago Stadium it was the Habs with popgun offence, scoring just 3 goals to Chicago’s 10. So when Jean Beliveau scored something like 14 seconds into Game 7, it was over early. The Habs built their early advantage to 4-0 by the end of the first and cruised home from there. The only boring Game 7 I’ve ever seen. Gump Worsley got the shutout, and Beliveau was awarded the first Conn Smythe Trophy.

1971: Montreal 3 @ Chicago 2
The homer series that wasn’t. Chicago was the higher seed but blinked in the final game, blowing a 2-0 lead in the process. The turning point came in the second period when Bobby Hull hit the crossbar and soon after Jacques Lemaire beat Tony Esposito on an 80-foot slapper that got the Habs back in the game while draining the confidence right out of the Hawks and their fans. From that moment the outcome seemed inevitable. Henri Richard scored the tying and winning goals, and Ken Dryden made them stand up with some remarkable netminding. The pre-rookie Dryden won the Smythe, the Pocket Rocket got his revenge for being benched earlier in the series, and winning coach Al MacNeil got demoted to the AHL. The only thing the Canadiens did better than infighting, was winning.

1987: Philadelphia 1 @ Edmonton 3
The first SCFG7 in sixteen long years, and my personal favourite, because I got to attend this game live. The ultimate experience for a hockey fan, knowing that the Stanley Cup is not only in the building but is certain to be given out. Whoever wins, Wins. I attended all four home games of that series, and it was the best live hockey I’ve ever seen. Philly had a great, gritty club that pushed the most talented of all Oiler squads right to the wall. In the ultimate game Flyers scored on an early 5-on-3, but the Oil tied it on a dazzling three-way passing play from Glenn Anderson to Kent Nilsson to Mark Messier before Jari Kurri put the Oil ahead to stay late in the second on a pass from Wayne Gretzky. After a series of goalposts, near misses, and great stops by Ron Hextall, Anderson finally put it away late in the third. Oilers outshot Philly 43-20 and were full value for the win. The rookie Hextall was a standout in defeat, receiving first star honours in Game 7 as well as the Smythe. Gretzky received the Cup from John Ziegler and immediately passed it to Steve Smith in an unforgettably classy gesture.

1994 Vancouver 2 @ New York Rangers 3

The Rangers were known as Edmonton East, and it stood them in good stead when the President’s Trophy winners blew two chances to win the Cup in Games 5 and 6, just as had happened to the Oil in ’87. The Rangers still had home ice for Game 7 and weren’t about to let it get away on them. Messier, Anderson, Kevin Lowe, Craig MacTavish, and Esa Tikkanen were teammates in both games; Jeff Beukeboom and Adam Graves had won Cups for Edmonton after ’87, and were key figures on those ’94 Rangers. Messier scored the Cup-winning goal, and Mike Richter and his posts made it stand up against a hard-battling Canucks squad. Brian Leetch scored the critical opening goal and ultimately received the Conn Smythe.

2001 New Jersey 1 @ Colorado 3

For the third year in a row the Finals featured a battle of superstar goalies, but after the previous two were decided in long overtimes in Game 6, this one went the limit. Patrick Roy was the story, shutting down the Devils’ league-leading offence (it’s true! and it wasn’t close), allowing just 11 goals in the 7 games including just 2 in the 4 Colorado victories. The Devils had a chance to clinch at home in Game 6 but laid a 4-0 egg at the Swamp. Back in the Mile High City, the Avalanche jumped out to a 3-0 lead on 2 goals and a helper from Alex Tanguay, then rode Roy and fierce checking to the finish line. Roy was a clear choice for his third Conn Smythe, while an aging Ray Bourque was both inspiration and a major contributor.

2003 Anaheim 0 @ New Jersey 3

Another battle between hot goalies, as Brodeur and the Devils returned for their third SCF in four years to face J.-S. Giguere and the upstart Ducks. This was a homer series similar to 1965, in which neither team could score in the other’s building. The Ducks outscored the Devils 9-4 on the Pond, including 2-0 in overtime, but the Devils dominated at the Swamp by a 15-3 margin, including three 3-0 shutouts. Mike Rupp was the unlikeliest of heroes, subbing in for an injured Joe Nieuwendyk, contributing the Cup-winning goal and setting up both insurance markers. Strong goaltending and defence did the rest. Smythe voters looked past Brodeur’s 7 shutouts and clearly superior performance in the SCF to award Giguere the Smythe, based on his utterly brilliant work in the Western Conference playdowns.

2004 Calgary 1 @ Tampa Bay 2

The upstart Flames had a golden opportunity to wrap this one up at home, but fell 3-2 to ex-Flame Marty St.Louis’ goal in double overtime. Back in Tampa the teams played a very tight game which erupted into electrifying end-to-end action after Calgary cut the lead to 2-1 in the late stages. Lightning rode a pair of goals from Ruslan Fedotenko, fierce checking, and outstanding goaltending from Nikolai Khabibulin to seal the win. Brad Richards was awarded the Conn Smythe for a spectacular playoff run which included 7 game winners among his 12 goals.

2006 Edmonton 1 @ Carolina 3

The Oilers were in the same boat as the ’87 Flyers and ’94 Canucks, coming back from a 3-1 series deficit to force a one-game showdown, unfortunately in the other guys’ rink. The Hurricanes bounced back from a 4-0 drubbing in Game 6 to score the all-important first goal on the game’s first sequence. Frank Kaberle extended the lead with the eventual Cup winning goal on a deflection off Jason Smith's butt before Fernando Pisani made it close early in the third, but the tying goal was not to be. An empty netter by Justin Williams provided the final margin in what was essentially a one-goal game. Cam Ward outdueled a game but rusty Jussi Markkanen over the 7 games, becoming the fourth rookie goalie to win the Smythe after Dryden, Roy and Hextall. The Carolina fans reportedly never sat down for the entire game.

2009 Pittsburgh ? @ Detroit ??

Well, who knows. If past experience means anything it will be a low-scoring affair favouring the home team. In the 9 SCFG7’s over the past half century, the hosts (and, by definition, the pre-series favourites) have outscored the visitors by an aggregate of 27-9, or exactly 3-1. Oiler fans have been on both sides of that exact scoreline. 8 of the 9 times the home team carried the day, 8 times the hosts scored first, 7 times the visitors were held to 0 or 1 goal. It’s a daunting task the Penguins face. Moreover, the series is following the pattern of those previous “homer” series, where each team has had trouble producing on the road. The Pens have handled the Wings 10-5 in the Igloo, but have been blitzed 11-2 in the Joe. 2 goals in 3 games, all too reminiscent of Bobby Hull, Stan Mikita and the high-powered Hawks wimpy production of 2 goals in 4 games at the Forum in ’65, or the Ducks meagre 3 at the Swamp in ’03. Malkin, Crosby, and the high-powered Pens aren’t only battling Osgood, Lidstrom, Zetterberg, Datsyuk and the boys, they’re fighting history.

Ah, history. Let’s go back just a little further. Like 2009, the 1955 Stanley Cup Finals featured a rare rematch of the previous year’s combatants, Montreal and Detroit, with the defending champion Wings again holding the all-important home ice advantage. Gordie Howe and Ted Lindsay, who dropped the ceremonial first pucks before this year's Game 1 in a memorable gathering of hockey greats, were formidable forces leading a powerhouse Red Wings squad the last time a Game 7 was played in the Motor City, 54 long years ago. It was a homer series all the way, with the rising powerhouse Habs scoring 15 goals in 3 games at the Forum, but just 5 in 4 games at the Olympia. (OK, I admit I had to look that one up. Don’t remember it well, having been a foetus at the time ... and my Mum was the only non-hockey fan in the whole famdamily, so I couldn’t even listen in.) Anyway, the Wings successfully defended their title with a convincing two-way effort in the showdown game, with Mister Hockey himself contributing the Stanley Cup-winning goal. The final score?

Montreal 1 @ Detroit 3

Hmmm. I’m not one for predictions, fearless or otherwise, but this is as good as I’ve got:

Pittsburgh 1 @ Detroit 3

12 comments:

Bruce said...

Like I said ;), first goal is huge.

I guess that's why they play the games. Game actually stuck to the Game 7 script, other than it was the road team that got the first one. Low-scoring, low shots, fierce checking, battles, battles, battles.

Halfwise said...

2006: it still hurts, and I am just a fan, not a player.
2009: Great final game, great final period, great final minute. Full marks to both teams, and Detroit was a crossbar away, or a desperate Fleury lunge away, from OT or better.

Sucks to be Marian Hossa today, I bet.

quiltmom said...

Your title says it all- it is a game of winners and losers - hard to see Detroit as losers but very happy for Sid the Kid. and Mario...
It is strange how games have a feel about them - the Pens played well and had an aura about them-
I remember watching the Oilers in 2006 and feeling like it was not too be - there wasn't one last miracle to be had -
The Pens/ Detroit game was different- maybe because I cared less about the outcome but Pens seemed to believe in themselves- and like many games there was the unsung heroes...
Enjoyed the game and the post..
A

Scott said...

Great post Bruce. I really enjoy it when you offer historical reviews, especially of things that you experienced in real time. Good game last night too.

Bruce said...

Thanks, Scott.

By my definition "experienced in real time" includes televised games -- 8 of the 9 games detailed here for example -- of which I've seen thousands over the years, compared to maybe 700 or so live NHL games, all but 2 involving the Oilers. But while my Oilers fandom has allowed access of a sort -- I live in an NHL city, get to experience live games on occasion, and for a few unforgettable years had regular exposure to the best and the brightest -- in the larger sense I am just a fan of the game, an addiction that shows no sign of abating after four and a half decades. Love the historical aspect, and particularly of trying to place current happenings in their historical context, as here.

Thanks for reading.

Black Dog said...

Great stuff Bruce, really terrific. Thanks for this.

Coach pb9617 said...

Wow Bruce - awesome stuff! Thanks!

Doogie2K said...

1965: Chicago 0 @ Montreal 4

The only boring Game 7 I’ve ever seen.


Oh good, I thought it was just me that was bored out of my mind when they played this one on NHL Network a couple of years back. After the first period, it was two periods of defensive slog, from what I recall. I think I eventually turned it off and went outside or something.

B.C.B. said...

I learn so much from my fellow bloggers. Since me mind does not remember anything from before 1988, this was a truly good learning experience for me.

Bruce said...

Thanks for the kind words, fellows. Glad you enjoyed it.

Doogie: The worst thing about Game 7 in '65 is that living in Newfoundland the games didn't start until 9:30. My mum used to make me go to bed and "sleep" for a couple hours before game time. I never did, of course, but I had to rely on my brothers to remember to "wake me up" and this was one time they forgot. So by the time I got down there the first period was pretty much over ... and so was the game. I missed the action, saw the slog.

Of course I was a Hab-hater in those days so I wouldn't have enjoyed it, but I was still mighty pissed about largely missing the denouement after having watched the whole playoffs. Still am, come to think of it.

If I ever get the chance you did to watch that game on NHL Network, I'll watch the first and then change channels. Cuz the rest was boring.

Bruce said...

Odd stat: Detroit outshooting Pittsburgh 24-18 is hardly unusual for a modern Game 7. Of the 5 played in the 2000s, the 10 teams have averaged just 22 shots on goal. Total shots for a game have never exceeded 50 (CAR-EDM) and bottomed out at a ghastly 32 (T.B-CAL).

Kind of puts the 43 shots Gretzky's Oilers fired at Ron Hextall in a different light, doesn't it?

Doogie2K said...

Of course I was a Hab-hater in those days so I wouldn't have enjoyed it, but I was still mighty pissed about largely missing the denouement after having watched the whole playoffs. Still am, come to think of it.

Hell, I'm a Habs lover and had no use for the last 40 of that game. I would PVR the game, watch the first, then fast-forward to the final minute to watch the Cup get handed out and call it a day.

I mean, sure, the '93 clinching game that comes on the DVDs is anticlimactic compared to the game that I'd have put on there (Game 2, with McSorley's stick and Desjardins' hat trick), but at least it was decently entertaining hockey, even if Montreal did start trapping it up after they went up 3-1.