Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Montreal Canadiens 1944

Like everything in life, the National Hockey League didn't escape the consequences of World War 11. NHL rosters were stripped of key components, as players signed up for military action. The main competition between NHL clubs was battling for players. The goaltending position took a direct hit. In Toronto, the Leafs starting goalie, Turk Broda, left the team to join the Canadian war effort. Scrambling for an experienced replacement, Toronto signed former Leaf Benny Grant. He was on the Leafs 1931-32 squad. Grant's last NHL action came with the 1933-34 New York Americans. In '43-44 Benny Grant played in 20 games with Toronto. In Montreal, the Canadiens turned to rookie Bill Durnan.

The major stories of 1943-44 revolved around, as you would suspect, goaltenders and rookies. Right from the outset, they both assaulted the NHL record book. Gus Bodnar of the Leafs entered the record book by scoring 15 seconds into his first regular season game. The goal came against the New York Rangers in Maple Leaf Gardens. Bill Durnan established a new measure of excellence by a rookie goalie. He went unbeaten in 14 consecutive games. In Detroit, Harry Lumley became the youngest goalie to suit-up for an NHL franchise. He was 17.

Highlights from 1943-44 included Montreal's perfect run on home ice. Their record in the Montreal Forum was 22-0-3. Toronto defenceman, Babe Pratt, gathered 6 assists in a contest on January 8, 1944, against Boston. Pratt would go on to capture the Hart Trophy (League MVP) at the end of '43-44. Other trophy winners were Gus Bodnar (Calder), Bill Durnan (Vezina) and Clint Smith (Lady Byng/Chicago).

The National Hockey League owners took steps to change the style of game being produced on the ice. They voted in favour of putting a red line across centre ice, thus allowing players to pass the puck to that point. This rule change is considered to be the start of the modern era in hockey. The move was designed to increase offensive play and supply entertaining action in a league which was depleted of many NHL regulars.

In the playoffs, semi-final play set Toronto against Montreal and Chicago versus Detroit. Both were best-of-seven series with Montreal downing Toronto (4-1) and Chicago taking out Detroit (4-1).

On April 13, 1944, the Montreal Canadiens defeated Chicago 5-4 to claim the Stanley Cup. It was Montreal's first Stanley Cup since 1931. And they performed the feat in dramatic fashion.

Leading the series 3-0, Montreal had the opportunity to sweep Chicago in four straight games. Game four was played in the Montreal Forum before 12,880 spectators. The first period ended in a 1-1 tie with Elmer Lach scoring for Montreal and  George Allen for Chicago. In the middle frame, Chicago benefited from  two straight Montreal penalties. In a span of three minutes, they scored three goals to go ahead 4-1. Scoring for the Hawks were John Harms, George Allen and Doug Bentley.

This set the stage for a thrilling third period. The fireworks for Montreal was ignited by their number trio of Toe Blake, Elmer Lach and Rocket Richard - the Punch Line. Half-way through period three, Lach scored for Montreal. Then, Rocket Richard netted two and tied the contest at 4-4. After nine minutes of overtime, Toe Blake scored giving Montreal an incredible come-from-behind victory. In addition to scoring the tally which won the Stanley Cup, Blake assisted on all four goals his linemates scored in regulation.

Toe Blake set an NHL record for most points in the playoffs. His 18 points surpassed Rocket Richard's record of 15 points which was reached earlier in the finals against Chicago.

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