Every year the Montreal Canadiens manage to make the playoffs the sacred spirits of Ken Dryden and Patrick Roy are invoked and some poor hapless goalie has the mantle of sainthood thrust upon them and they are expected to deliver a Stanley Cup to the fans of Montreal.
Dennis Heron, Steve Penney, Jocelyn Thibault, Jose Theodore, Jeff Hackett, Cristobel Huet and even young Carey Price have all been crushed by those unreasonable expectations. Now it's Jaroslav Halak's turn.
Last night, Halak's 53 saves provided a win the likes of which haven't been seen in Montreal since Dryden managed to beat the big bad Bruins back in the 1971 playoffs.
Back then the Bruins were fresh off of their first cup since 1941. Bobby Orr had the previous playoffs scored his superman goal over St Louis to win the cup. He'd lead the league in scoring that year becoming the only defenseman ever to do it. He won the Art Ross trophy, the Hart trophy, the Conn Smythe trophy and the James Norris trophy. Bobby Orr lead the league at +124 that year.
The 1970-71 season saw the Bruins looking like an unbeatable dynasty. They again lead the league in scoring with 399 goals. This was a hundred and eight goals more than the Montreal Canadiens had managed to score that year.
The Bruins had four +100 point players on their roster: Orr, Esposito, Bucyk and Hodge. The Canadiens leading scorer was their captain, 39 year old Jean Beliveau, who had 76 points in 70 regular season games, and who would retire at the end of the season. The Bruins were the wave of the future. The Canadiens' time had passed.
The Bruins' dynasty ran up against what turned out to be a pretty good Canadiens' roster. It featured all-time greats like Beliveau, Frank Mahovlich and Henri "The Pocket Rocket" Richard and a flock of future hall of famers: Yvan Cournoyer, Jacques Lemaire, JC Tremblay, Guy Lapointe and of course Dryden.
Dryden came from Cornell and replaced great goalie Rogatien Vachon. His size and style confused and frustrated the over-confident Bruins. They ended up losing their composure and finally the series in seven. The Canadiens went on to win a Cup and established themselves as a team to beat. They drafted a youngster from the Quebec junior leagues in 1970 that was about to turn them back into a dynasty team: Guy Lafleur.
The Bruins raged that the best team hadn't won the Stanley Cup in 1971. They came back the next year to show everyone they were the true winner. That, however, was the last Cup the Bruins have ever won. The blossoming of the Canadiens after the 1971 playoffs and the development of dynasty teams in Philadelphia and on the island in New York left the Bruins competing for, but never winning another Cup. A team that perhaps could have won four or five consecutive Cups managed a mere two, bracketing their loss to the Montreal Canadiens and rookie goalie Ken Dryden in 1971.
The Capitals have reached such a cusp. An offensive juggernaut during the season, they've managed to allow a not very impressive Montreal Canadiens team into a Game Seven. Halak stood on his head to win Game Six and Varlamov let a couple soft goals in which has to make them nervous.
NHL greatness in a 30-team league is no longer measured in dynasties, simply Cup wins. The Capitals looked like the best regular season team in the league but they need to win this Game Seven. If they don't the entire lineup is suddenly suspect. Ovechkin and Semin not winning at the Olympics suddenly becomes part of a theme.
It's unfair for all of this to fall on Halak's shoulders. He has nothing like the 1971 Montreal Canadiens in front of him. If there's a future hall of famer on this team it's Halak himself and he'll need another 15 seasons like this last one to get a sniff at it.
Roy in 1993 helped beat a Quebec Nordiques team that was only two points ahead of the Canadiens in the regular season. A series of playoff upsets allowed the Canadiens to meet and beat the Buffalo Sabres, eighth best team in the east, The New York Islanders sixth in the east, and finally the Los Angeles Kings, the sixth seed from the west. Montreal had a better record in the regular season than all those teams except Quebec.
When the spirits of playoff upset victories must be invoked it's got to be Ken Dryden then. He lead his third in the east Canadiens past the dynasty bound Bruins, who were first in the east with 121 points and 15 more wins than the Canadiens in that 78 game season. He also got them past Bobby Hull, Stan Mikita and Tony Esposito and the Chicago Blackhawks. They'd managed 107 points and seven more regular season wins than the Habs.
If Halak finally manages a Game Seven win over the league leading Capitals it'll be the first time I've seen the Habs manage a comparable upset since 1971 when Ken Dryden arranged it.