Billed as Rivalry Night, the Toronto Maple Leafs and Detroit Red Wings took to the Air Canada Centre ice last Saturday night. Besides two valuable points in the standings, bragging rights were on the line as the winning side would claim the lead in the overall series between the two clubs. Going into the contest, Detroit and Toronto played each other 643 times with each Original Six franchise winning 275 games and 93 resulting in a draw.
In a highly entertaining game, the Maple Leafs pounced on the visitors taking a 3-0 lead into the first intermission. The middle frame turned sour for the Leafs and their supporters. Goals by Todd Bertuzzi and Niklas Kronwall allowed the Motor City visitors to pull within one. This set-up an exciting final twenty-minutes of action. After controlling play in the second, the Red Wings continued pouring it on in the third. Their efforts were rewarded when Jiri Hudler beat Jonas Gutavsson to even the score at 3-3. The eventual winning goal came off the stick of Joffrey Lupul at 7:10 allowing the Leafs to escape with a 4-3 victory.
Toronto and Detroit played their final regular season game in the Original Six era on March 15, 1967. The setting was Maple Leaf Gardens with 15,479 spectators taking in the event. Also on this date, Leafs coach and general manager George "Punch" Imlach was marking his 49th birthday. There is little doubt the only birthday present on Imlach's wish list was two-points.
The starting goalies were Terry Sawchuk for the blue & white and Roger Crozier for Detroit. Like the contest last Saturday evening, the Maple Leafs held the advantage as they headed to the dressing room to rest and prepare for the next period of play. Bob Pulford opened the scoring, but Paul Henderson and the Red Wings quickly responded. Late in the period, Jim Pappin gave the Leafs a 2-1 lead.
Over the final forty-minutes, Detroit nibbled away at Toronto's slim lead. The only scoring in the middle frame came courtesy of Wings sniper Gordie Howe. His 22nd goal of the 1966-67 campaign made the score 2-2.
The outcome of this match would be decided in period number three.
It didn't take the Wings long to crash Imlach's birthday party. At 1:04, rookie call-up Doug Roberts lifted his team to a 3-2 advantage. Hall of Fame writer Frank Orr described the goal in the Star - "Howe and Roberts buzzed Leafs net for several seconds, forcing Terry Sawchuk to stop three shots before Roberts shoved it home."
Detroit finished off the Leafs when Paul Henderson produced his second tally of the night. The Wings departed Toronto with a 4-2 win.
With the National Hockey League landscape changing with expansion the following season, the luster of any Original Six match-up has only grown in importance and nostalgic significance over subsequent years. The rich history and past battles of these six teams means something to those who watched their heroes battle for Lord Stanley's mug year-in-and-year-out.
On Saturday January 7, 2012 it was no different.