The Columbus Blue Jackets deserve high praise for their sweep of the Tampa Bay Lightning. That was a five-star playoff upset. But this astonishing ouster took place in the first round. For the Stanley Cup final upset-of-all-upsets, we have to turn the clock back 70 years and revisit the Toronto Maple Leafs vs. Detroit Red Wings in 1949.
Despite being the defending champions, the Leafs had no business making the final. They finished 1948-49 under .500 and lost three of their top players before the season began. Hall of Fame captain Syl Apps and reliable winger Nick Metz had retired while defenseman Wally Stanowski had been dealt to the Rangers. None of the three had been replaced. Plus, the entire team seemed to have lost motivation. “We were getting fat,” said sparkplug winger Howie Meeker, “and the team let down.”
Not so on the Detroit side. The Motor City powerhouse ran away with the regular season (34-19-7 for 75 points), nine points up on runner-up Boston.
Coach Hap Day’s discombobulated Toronto team finished with a 22-25-13 mark for 57 points, 18 behind Detroit. Plus, the Wings boasted the NHL’s scary ‘Production Line’ as well as a trio of Hall of Famers on defense and another legend in goal. The Gordie Howe-Ted Lindsay-Sid Abel offensive unit had terrorized enemy goaltenders while Red Kelly, Bill Quackenbush and John ‘Black Jack’ Stewart formed an iron wall in front of Harry ‘Apple Cheeks’ Lumley in the crease. Lumley completed the season with a league-leading 34 wins while Quackenbush, Stewart and Abel made the NHL’s first all-star team. By contrast, Toronto failed to place a player on either the first or second all-star teams. “I was never confident,” Day recalled to Jack Batten in the book, The Leafs In Autumn. “Our team won the year before, and if I got on them to do it again, they’d say, ‘What, do you expect us to win every year?’ When a mental lag comes, it hits a whole team at once.”
Still, the Leafs somehow snuck into fourth place and faced well-balanced Boston in the semifinal. This inspired Bruins captain Milt Schmidt to unabashedly declare, “We have the better club.” And so they did – for one game. Meanwhile, Day’s suddenly energized outfit won the other four, setting the table for the David-and-Goliath final of Leafs vs. Wings.
Confident Motor City fans poured into Olympia Stadium for the opener on April 8, 1949. The crowd roared when George Gee beat Toronto’s Turk Broda before the game was five minutes old. But nine minutes later, Max Bentley – skating on the Leafs’ third line with Ray Timgren and Joe Klukay – tied the count and eventually a pulsating 2-2 game went to overtime. Finally, at 17:31 of OT, Klukay tipped Timgren’s pass behind Lumley, who was to be outplayed by Broda throughout the series. “You win a series with a hot goaltender,” Day said, “and at playoff time Turk always has been great for us.”
So he was in Game 2 at Olympia Stadium. The Wings didn’t score until the third period, by which time Toronto’s Sid Smith had tallied a natural hat trick – two goals in the first and one in the second – for the Leafs’ 3-1 decision. Day’s checkers foiled Howe, Lindsay and Abel. “Actually,” Hap said, “we started tightening up in February. We got our minds on defense long before the playoffs.”
The proof was in Game 3 at Maple Leaf Gardens. The ‘Production Line’ – forced to play more than 40 minutes – was reduced to frustration. Meanwhile, Bill Ezinicki, Ted Kennedy and Gus Mortson tallied for Toronto, leaving the Wings with another 3-1 loss.
Gasping for playoff breath, Adams ordered canisters of oxygen be placed on the Wings’ bench for Game 4 to give his players a quick lift. The ploy worked for a period as Lindsay gave Detroit a 1-0 lead. But Toronto rallied for another unlikely 3-1 win to seal the sweep. “The Leafs just skated and hammered their rivals into the pipes,” commented the Toronto Star. As the Gardens’ bell tolled to conclude another unlikely result, the arena’s band played Happy Days Are Here Again.
And so it was a happy time for Day, whose Leafs become the first three-straight-Cups dynasty in NHL annals.