Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Montreal Canadiens 1953

The defending Stanley Cup champions continued to excel during the 1952-53 season. Once again, the Detroit Red Wings finished at the top of the league standings after 70 games. Detroit's 36-16-18 record gave them a 15 point cushion over second place Toronto.

As expected, when it came time to distribute the major NHL silverware, Detroit players were prominent in 4 out of 5 categories. In a repeat performance, both Gordie Howe (Hart & Art Ross) and Terry Sawchuk (Vezina) duplicated their feats from the previous year. After a one year absence, Red Kelly reclaimed the Lady Byng Trophy. The Calder Trophy went to New York goalie Gump Worsley.

Gump Worsley

The battle between two of the games greatest right wingers was front and centre during the regular season. The duo of Gordie Howe and Rocket Richard were consistently in competition with one another. The debate raged as to which player was the NHL's finest right winger. Both Howe and Richard provided their supporters with plenty of ammunition to debate their cause.

Early in the season, on November 8, 1952, Rocket Richard set a new NHL record for most goals scored. His tally against Chicago gave him 325 career goals, surpassing the mark held by Nels Stewart. Not to be outdone, Howe made his own imprint in the record book. He concluded the '52-53 campaign with 95 points (49 goals & 46 assists), thus shattering his own standard of 86 points, which he established the previous year.

If one was marking a scorecard in the epic fight between the two superstars, the unanimous winner, based on results from games 1 to 70, would be Gordie Howe. In the points race, Richard ranked third with 28 goals and 33 assists for 61 points in 70 games. Coming in second, with 71 points, was Howe's teammate Ted Lindsay. Come selection time, it was Number Nine in Detroit who was named to the First All-Star Team at right wing. Although Howe was declared the winner in Round One, fans of Rocket Richard looked forward to Round Two - the Stanley Cup playoffs.

In the semi-finals, Detroit faced third place Boston, with the series opening in the Olympia. The Red Wings made a definite statement by crushing Boston 7-0 in game 1. With opening night jitters out of the way, Boston rebounded in game 2 by defeating Detroit 5-3. With goaltender Sugar Jim Henry as the anchor to their defensive unit, Boston took full advantage of home ice by downing Boston 2-1 (OT) in game 3 and 6-2 in game 4. The defending Cup champs would relinquish their title without a fight. In game 5, Detroit sent their fans home happy with a 6-4 victory. The series would end in game 6, as Boston bounced Detroit from post-season action. Boston outscored Detroit 4-2 at Boston Garden, thus completing their stunning upset.

Sugar Jim Henry
The other semi-final featured Montreal and Chicago. The Black Hawks were a vastly improved club, having increased their points total by 26 over 1951-52. Could they show further improvement in hockey's second season? Based on results from game 1 and 2 in the Montreal Forum, it was going to be an uphill battle. The Canadiens took both games by scores of 3-1 and 4-3. The tide would turn with play shifting to the Chicago Stadium. Like the other semi-final encounter, goaltending was a deciding factor. With Al Rollins guarding the Hawks net, Chicago took game 3 in overtime 2-1. They followed that up in game 4 by outlasting Montreal 3-1.

In the pivotal game 5, Chicago earned a 4-2 road victory in Montreal. Again, goaltending became a key component to the series. The Canadiens replaced Gerry McNeil with Jacques Plante. The move certainly paid off for the Habs. Plante blanked Chicago in game 6 by a score of 3-0. Thus, setting-up a one game contest to determine Boston's opponent in the Stanley Cup final.

On April 7, 1953, in the Forum, Jacques Plante and the Canadiens easily handled Chicago in a 4-1 decision to advance.

With little rest, Montreal and Boston played game 1 of the final on April 9, 1953. The two teams split games 1 and 2, with Montreal taking the opener 4-2. The Bruins skated off the Forum ice after game 2 with a 4-1 result. The game of musical chairs continued when it came to the goaltending situation. As the series moved to Beantown, Plante was replaced by McNeil. Felled by an illness earlier in the Cup final, Boston had to do without Sugar Jim Henry. His replacement was Hershey (AHL) netminder Gordon "Red" Henry. This development clearly swung the advantage in Montreal's favour. The Canadiens swept each contest in Boston by scores of 3-0 and 7-3.

With a 3-1 series lead, Montreal was in a position to capture Lord Stanley's mug on April 16th at the Forum. Hoping to counter their adversity, Boston once again had Sugar Jim Henry in goal. True to form, game 5 turned into a goaltending battle. After sixty-minutes of play neither team was able to put a puck past the opposing netminder.

As is the case in all overtime games, a hero is destined to emerge. In game 5, this honour went to Elmer Lach of Montreal. The deciding goal was scored early at 1:22 of the first overtime period. A newspaper report provides the details.

 The end came with suddenness, when it appeared as if the Bruins were in command of the situation. Eddie Mazur of Habs had missed on a rush, and Milt Schmidt was forming a counter-attack. He wheeled away from two Habs, carried behind his goal and then tried to send a breakaway pass to Woody Dumart, which would have trapped Richard, Lach and Mazur. His aim was poor. Lach intercepted and presto it was all over but the cheering and speech-making.

As for the Gordie Howe/Rocket Richard confrontation, Number Nine of Montreal regained the title-belt from Howe. In 12 playoff dates, the Rocket netted 7 goals and 1 assist. Howe, eliminated in the semi-final, notched 2 goals and 5 assists in 6 games. More importantly, Maurice Richard had his name engraved on the Stanley Cup.

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