Who was responsible for was the greatest one-man display in NHL playoff history?
In the opinion of historian-author-columnist Andy O’Brien, who covered the Montreal Canadiens’ five-Cup halcyon seasons from the 1940s through the 1950s, the answer is Maurice ‘The Rocket’ Richard.
“What Rocket did on March 23, 1944 against the Maple Leafs,” wrote O’Brien, “would be tough to duplicate. He scored all five goals, leading the Habs to victory and an eventual Cup.”
Even Richard, who enjoyed oodles of phenomenal nights in a career that included eight Cup-winning teams and 544 goals, said, “That’s the one game I’ll never forget.”
Before going into detail, let me say I watched the Rocket play from the beginning to the end of his career. Spectacular would be a gross understatement in describing his arresting play in so many ways, versatile and violent. Richard ignited the biggest riot in NHL history, was the first to score 50 goals in 50 games and used his extraordinary strength to more advantage than any Hall of Famer. “When I was playing goal for Chicago,” Emile Francis once recalled to me, “Rocket actually scored a goal carrying both my defensemen on his back.”
Richard’s intimidating qualities included his physique and his super-intensity. Goalies, such as Hall of Famer Glenn Hall, were frightened by Rocket’s eyes when he barreled in from right wing. “His eyes were all lit up,” said Hall, “flashing and gleaming like a pinball machine. It was terrifying.”
Richard’s goals were extraordinary to be sure – especially his backhand shots, regarded as the best and hardest ever – but the Rocket’s outburst of red lights that night at Montreal’s Forum stands out as the puck-pourri of all-time.
This was Game 2 of the semifinal between his Canadiens and Toronto. The underdog Maple Leafs had taken a 1-0 series lead with a 3-1 victory. Montreal’s fans were up in arms and frustrated since the Habs had not won a Cup since 1931. Falling behind at home was especially irksome since coach Dick Irvin’s team had finished far ahead of any team.
Columnists such as the Montreal Gazette’s Dink Carroll wondered how Rocket would break free of Toronto defensive forward Bob Davidson. “Part of the Leafian strategy was to tie up Richard,” Carroll wrote. “They figured they’d stop the Habs by stopping The Rocket.”
Even Maurice had his doubts. “The Leafs always were close-checking,” Richard told George Vass in The Game I’ll Never Forget. “Davidson was always shadowing me. Sometimes he’d stay so close I’d get angry. But in that game, I took it out on him – and the puck.”
The Canadiens boasted the league’s best offense led by the ‘Punch Line’ of Richard, centered by Elmer Lach with Toe Blake on left wing. After a scoreless first period, Blake set up Richard with less than two minutes gone in the second frame. Just 17 seconds later the Rocket again lit the red light.
Defenseman Reg Hamilton put the Leafs back in the running, but any hopes for a comeback were snuffed out again by the Rocket, who completed his hat trick late in the middle period. By this time it was apparent Davidson was helpless to derail The Richard Express, forcing Toronto coach Hap Day to insert younger skaters. “Richard made a monkey out of the younger Leafs who tried to take over the task of shadowing him,” Carroll wrote.
The Rocket delivered again for the Forum crowd of 12,243 a minute into the third period. Blake and Lach again were the architects, setting up what was a laser wrist shot behind Paul Bibeault. By now the Punch Line was penetrating the Toronto defense with ease, and at 8:54, they did it again with Blake and Lach each deserving an assist on The Rocket’s remarkable fifth goal. “The funny thing is,” Richard said. “I don’t think I had more than six or seven shots on goal all game. And each goal was scored in a different way.”
Analyzing Richard for Sports Illustrated, author William Leggett exclaimed, “Rocket could find a loose puck in a pile of coal during a blackout.”
After disposing of Toronto in five games, Montreal then swept Chicago to win the Cup.
Not only did Richard break new ice by scoring five goals in a playoff game, he also made history on the Forum’s public address system. Hockey Night In Canada radio play-by-play man Foster Hewitt traditionally picked the three stars of every playoff game, then passed the names to the arena’s P.A. man.
When the announcer revealed that Richard was the third star, the partisan crowd booed, thinking it was an insult to its hero. Next came the second star, and, yes, it was Richard again. Then, a pause: “La premiere etoile – MAURICE RICHARD!”
Underlining this once-in-a-lifetime event was a headline in the newspaper the next day: RICHARD 5, LEAFS 1!
This story appears in the August 20, 2018 issue of The Hockey News magazine.