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Hawks vs. Habs: Stories From An Original Six Rivalry

Friday, 10.30.2009 / 10:35 AM / Features
By Brett Ballantini  - Special to chicagoblackhawks.com
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Hawks vs. Habs: Stories From An Original Six Rivalry
This story appeared in the January 2009 edition of Blackhawks Magazine, the official game program of the Chicago Blackhawks. The newest edition is now available at all Blackhawks home games, by calling the Blackhawks Store at 1-800-GO-HAWKS or for purchase as a digital edition.

The Montreal Canadiens and Chicago Blackhawks have faced off against one another for 82 years now. No NHL team can match the 24 Stanley Cup-resume of the Habs, and Chicago indeed has fallen victim to many of Montreal's Cup runs, succumbing in 12 of 17 all-time playoff series between the two teams.

There have been some legendary moments that have taken place with these two teams on the ice: Maurice "Rocket" Richard scored the 400th goal of his career at Chicago Stadium on December 18, 1954. Revolutionary netminder Jacques Plante wore a mask for the first time in an NHL game for a 2-2 tie vs. the Blackhawks at the Montreal Forum on November 7, 1959. And closer to today's Hawks, Montreal native and Blackhawks legend Denis Savard had his Chicago jersey retired vs. the Canadiens on March 19, 1998.

But the longtime rivalry the Blackhawks have with this fellow Original Six club can be boiled down to a stretch of a dozen years and four monumental playoff series.

The first crucial year in the apex of the Blackhawks-Canadiens rivalry is 1961, when Chicago last took home the Stanley Cup. The club, packed with future Hall-of-Famers including Glenn Hall, Bobby Hull, Stan Mikita, and Pierre Pilote, defeated the Detroit Red Wings in six games in the Finals. But it was a semifinal game hosting Montreal that forever gilded this tough gang of Hawks-and marked the competitiveness of the rivalry.

Maurice Richard catches Eric Nesterenko with his stick during the 1961 Stanley Cup Final.
It was Game 3 of the semis. Right wing Murray Balfour, a former Canadien, had put Chicago up 1-0 with a goal late in the second period, but Henri Richard tapped in a goal with thirty seconds left in the game to force overtime.

Mikita had been penalized just seconds earlier after getting into a brawl with right wing Bill Hicke. And the beef didn't end on the ice, either.

"In the penalty box, we hadn't even sat down when Hicke said something uncomplimentary to me," Mikita says. "I answered him back, and we started swinging. It took a couple of minutes before the linesmen could separate us."

Both players got 10-minute misconducts and were in the locker rooms when a groan went up from the Stadium crowd indicating that Richard had tied the game. Neither thought they'd see action in overtime, given that both still had nearly 17 minutes of penalties to serve apiece. But five shots off the pipes between the two teams and 40 minutes later, the game entered a third overtime. It was there that Mikita, playing the point on a power play, got clear on the left side and sent the puck toward the crease where Balfour backhanded it through Plante's legs for the game-winner.

"That was the confidence-builder we needed," Mikita says. "We knew we could beat Montreal, but still, we had to show them we could do it, too. Surviving a marathon like that broke their spirit and bolstered ours."

Four years later, Montreal had its chance to exact revenge, facing the Blackhawks for the 1965 Stanley Cup. Montreal had home ice, which turned out to be a huge advantage given that neither team lost a home game in the series. But the real MVP of the Canadiens' Cup charge was Hall-of-Fame goalie Gump Worsley, who shut out the Blackhawks twice, including the Game 7-clincher with a sprained knee.

"It was very hard for our team to shift gears in the postseason," Pilote says. "We were a high-flying, hard-slap shot team. Every hockey fan loved our style. But in the playoffs, the game gets tighter and more defense-oriented. We were never able to make that transition fully."

Jerry Korab tries to put the puck past Ken Dryden.
And another four years after the 1965 Finals, the Canadiens gave the Blackhawks perhaps the most monumental gift ever. Coming off of a last-place 1968-69 season, Chicago claimed goaltender Tony Esposito off waivers from Montreal. The cost: $25,000. The payoff: immediate.

"The Canadiens really didn't have any plans for me, so the Hawks picked me up," Esposito says. "When I came here, we both had something to prove."

The Blackhawks were bolstered by the additions of rookies Esposito, Keith Magnuson and Cliff Koroll in 1969-70. And after an underrated steal of a deal with Los Angeles for defenseman Bill White on February 20, the team caught fire and went 14-3-2 through April Fools' Day.

It set up a home-and-home end of the season vs. struggling Montreal. The Canadiens desperately needed wins to keep their 22-season playoff streak alive, while Chicago was shooting for first place. When the Hawks took the first game, 4-1, at the Forum, it set up a do-or-die scenario for Montreal.

"I thought to beat them twice, in back-to-back weekend games, would really be something special," Esposito recalls. "Especially because I had been with them the year before."

Because the Canadiens could have still made the playoffs by scoring five goals - win or lose - Montreal coach Claude Ruel started pulling goalie Rogie Vachon midway through the third with the Habs trailing 5-2. Even in the face of that onslaught, Esposito stopped every shot, capping his Vezina and Calder Trophy-winning season. In addition to revolutionizing the crease with his legs-open butterfly style, 'Tony O' set an all-time record with 15 shutouts in 1969-70.

Not only had Chicago snapped the Candiens' long postseason streak, this game marked a beginning of its own. It would be 28 seasons-stretching until 1997-before the Blackhawks would sit out the playoffs.

Tony Esposito saves a shot from Yvan Cournoyer at the Montreal Forum.
The Canadiens bounced back quickly and ended up opposing the Blackhawks for the Stanley Cup the very next year, in a Cup series that started promisingly but would go down in Blackhawks history more bitter than any. Chicago had home-ice advantage and won the first three of its home games-and Montreal did the same. The first six games were unbearably tight, with the Canadiens outscoring the Blackhawks by a single goal up to the start of Game 7.

On a warm May day at Chicago Stadium, the two clubs faced off to determine the 1971 Stanley Cup. It was a chance for the Blackhawks to avenge three prior Cup losses to Montreal.

Dennis Hull - part of the second line along with Pit Martin and Jim Pappin, dubbed "MPH" - drew first blood for the Blackhawks on a power-play goal late in the first. "I put one in past Ken Dryden from the slot," he says. "It was like a dream come true, a dream I'd had as a kid and still had as an adult."

Danny O'Shea notched another midway through the second period. Up 2-0, the club felt the momentum, driven by 18,000-plus Chicago Stadium crazies. And in a game of near-misses, the Blackhawks nearly iced it late in the second on a shot off the pipes from Bobby Hull

"We were on the power play, and Pit set me up for a slap shot," says the Golden Jet. "I hit the puck so hard off the crossbar it nearly shot back out of the zone."

In a cruel twist, Jacques Lemaire gathered the pill and skated it to center ice.

"It was so warm that there was a slight fog hanging over the ice, almost a mist," Dennis Hull says.

Lemaire lofted a shot from 70 feet that was too far away for Esposito to get a bead on in the fog, and it got past the stingy goalie for a Montreal tally. Henri Richard scored four minutes later and provided the winning score with just two and a half minutes left in the game.

"Those are the kinds of things that can turn a game or even a series," Lemaire says of his puck dump-turned-goal. "The one thing we always had on our side was a willingness to keep trying. We never gave up, and when you're constantly digging and scratching, good things happen."

Just two seasons later, the Blackhawks had a chance for revenge vs. the highly-favored Canadiens. Chicago went down 3-1 in the series before spoiling a potential Cup-clincher at home for Montreal by winning a ridiculous 8-7 shootout in Game 5, in which Esposito and Ken Dryden, the two best goalies in hockey, surrendered 15 goals between them-and this just two days after Dryden had shut out the Hawks in Chicago. By 1973, Bobby Hull was gone and his brother's MPH line was tops in Chicago. And it was a career-risking snuff of its power-play charge that turned out to effectively clinch the Cup for Montreal in Game 6.

Bobby Hull tries to put a shot past Gump Worsley.
The Blackhawks were ahead 2-0 when Martin and Hull had a two-on-one breakaway on Montreal right wing Claude Larose. Hull had found daylight behind Larose and the 11th-year skater made a desperate play to prevent the Blackhawks from getting the Stadium crowd insurmountably behind them.

"Martin was going to pass to Dennis and Dennis had me beat, so I had to dive to intercept the pass," Larose says. "That's the last thing I remember. When I woke up, they told me I had gone right through the net. Crashing into the goal bar put a couple dozen stitches in my head and gave me a broken leg.

"But there was no goal."

Montreal rallied to score three successive goals, and an eventual 4-4 tie through two periods was broken for good with two Canadiens tallies in the third.

The Blackhawks had snapped a steak of five-straight playoff losses to the Canadiens when they blew through Montreal en route to the 1961 Cup. But after that triumph, the Habs had the Hawks' number; almost literally a drop of the puck helped Montreal keep the Blackhawks from fourth and fifth Stanley Cups.

Still, the rivalry was always ripe and each participant looks back with affection to the days when he laid it all out on the ice for the logo on his chest.

"In those days, even in the Forum, you would see familiar faces in the stands," says Pilote, a Quebec native who had his Chicago jersey retired this past November. "There was a dedication on the ice and a brotherhood off it - teammates and opponents both - that I'll always remember."

Dryden likewise cherished his games vs. the Blackhawks: "Chicago gave you its best game every time out. Those guys worked us. When we lost, we knew we lost to a team with a lot of heart. When we won, we might have been sipping champagne - but we were sipping sitting down." In the end, rivalries like Chicago-Montreal are what built hockey into something great. There's not a hockey fan in the world who doesn't recognize that.

"It was an honor to play with my Blackhawks teammates," Mikita says. "And for those in other sweaters, particularly the Canadiens, they - like us - treated the game with respect and dignity. You laced 'em up and fought against Montreal for a hard 60 minutes.

"What's better than that?"