As Stanley Cup Final Rounds go, few – if any – could surpass the collision of Montreal and Toronto forces in the Spring of 1951.
The Maple Leafs who had become the first team ever to win three consecutive Cups (1947, 1948, 1949) now were aiming for an unprecedented four out of five.
Led by Maurice (The Rocket) Richard, the Habs had come off a surprise semifinal triumph over the defending champion Red Wings but were not given much of chance against the loaded Leafs. Montreal Gazette columnist Dink Carroll summed up the pessimism in one sentence.
"The Leafs had a decided edge on Canadiens all through the regular season," wrote Carroll.
That was because Toronto's hockey boss, Conn Smythe had retained the nucleus of his trifecta Champs including four-time Cup-winners goalie Turk Broda and captain-center Ted (Teeder) Kennedy. Broda. 36. was the NHL's oldest player.
For goaltending insurance, Smythe had added angular Al Rollins who so adroitly backed Broda during the 1950-51 campaign that they both shared the Vezina Trophy.
"Broda is the greatest team player I ever had," said Smythe. "However, I will recommend to the Board of Directors that we pay Turk a normal year's salary next season and work an understudy (Rollins) in for about 30 games."
The rotation worked and when Rollins was wounded in the opening playoff game against Boston, Broda moved between the pipes and knocked out Boston with a pair of shutouts and five goals spread over six games. "Turk is the greatest playoff goalie of them all," Smythe concluded.
Meanwhile, the underdog Habs dumped defending champion Detroit in six games paced by Rocket Richard who generally was acknowledged as the league's most dangerous sniper.
Smythe: "Dick Irvin (Canadiens coach) will have them flying. So far as I'm, concerned we're still underdogs."
Actually, the teams were competitively close. In Game One, the Leafs needed an overtime goal by Sid Smith to win, 3-2. But the Canadiens came right back and within three minutes of the first extra session, the Rocket settled matters at 3-2 in he sudden death session.
Smythe and Toronto's rookie coach, Joe Primeau, believed that Broda was tiring and choe Rollins for Game Three at Montreal. Once again the teams were tied after regulation only thanks to Rollins and his heroics in goal. Finally, at 4:47 of OT Ted Kennedy beat goalie Gerry McNeil, putting Toronto ahead by a game.
Once again, overtime was the order of the day in Game Four and another hero, Harry Watson, emerged for Toronto. He beat Gerry McNeil at 5:15 to lift his club to within one win from The Cup. But coach Primeau was being ultra-cautious.
The warning was clear. Beware of the Rocket. No defenseman was to drift over into the Habs zone when Richard was on the ice. Punishment would be a $500 fine. Also, whoever is Richard's check should stick to him like airplane glue.
Irvin still was confident. His goalie, Gerry McNeil, had been brilliant and Rocket was getting many chances but missed three "sure" goals. "If I was as lucky as the Leafs," moaned Irvin, "I'd be a millionaire."
Lady Luck appeared on the Habs side as they nursed a 2-1 lead through the 18-minute mark of the third period. Finally, with a face-off deep in the Montreal zone, Primeau yanked Rollins for an extra skater.
Montreal controlled the draw, firing long-distance at the open net and missing by inches only. With only 39 seconds remaining, Primeau again pulled Rollins. "I was worried." Primeau later allowed, "but it was the only move."
Toronto center Ted Kennedy won the draw and skimmed the rubber to Max Bentley at the blueline. The lithe center shimmied and shaked his way into scoring position bu ot the puck but when defenseman Emile (Butch Bouchard rushed him, Max flipped the puck to Sid Smith whose shot hit the post. Tod Sloan got the rebound and beat McNeil with an open-netter
Bentley: "The fans hollered so much I think the noise lasted 15 minutes."
I was listening to Foster Hewitt's radio play by play on CBL-Toronto when the fifth out of five overtimes began. Although the Leafs were leading the series three games to one, I was as concerned as Smythe or Primeau about another explosive Richard goal like the one he scored in the first period.
Gentleman Joe, the coach, already had warned the impetuous Barilko about the fine that awaited him for trespassing into the enemy zone while Rocket was on the ice. Toronto's Left wing Harry Watson was aware that Richard was a right wing and, therefore, Maurice was the player that Harry was assigned to check; as if that were possible.
Then again, Harry was aware of his offensive assignment and wouldn't ignore an overtime scoring chance if he could help it. Sure enough, early in the extra session, Watson sped down right wing – his wrong side – getting the puck behind the Habs net where teammate Howie Meeker was battling Canadiens defenseman Tom Johnson for ice.
Watson's shot hit the side of the net but somehow he got the puck to Meeker who eventually tries to either jam the rubber or center it for a shot. Meanwhile goalie McNeil went to his knees to block the Meeker wraparound. Watson then shoots but the puck caroms out toward the blue line.
Throwing warnings to the winds, Barilko charges over the blue line toward the fetching puck. "He was almost on top of me," McNeil later explained. Worse for McNeil, he still was sitting on the ice. By now Barilko had swatted the puck while almost aloft and sent it over the horizontal goalie and into the net.
After his teammates had mobbed the exultant Barilko, Primeau vaulted the boards and rushed to his heroic defenseman. Bariklo looked up at his jubilant coach and said, "I guess you didn't want the hook on me that time, did you?"
Naturally, I wanted an archival photo and story of that inimitable game and decided I would go with the Montreal Gazette full page coverage. LEAF NIP CANADIENS 3-2 IN OVERTIME TO TAKE STANLEY CUP. The Gazette game story was written by its lead columnist Dink Carroll as was his "Playing The Field Column." The subhead to Dink's column summed up the five-game series in five-little words – THE LEAFS HAD THE EDGE.
The scrapbook page includes a Tod Sloan Toronto goal on the left and Barilko's Cup-winner on the right. Ironically, the Montreal player behind Barilko on the right is the man Primeau warned his defenseman to guard against – none other than Rocket Richard!
P.S. Primeau did, as promised, and rescinded the Barilko fine.
P.S.S. Canada's Hero; Barilko and dentist friend Dr. Henry Hudson disappeared later in the Summer of 1951 on a fishing trip in Northern Ontario and never returned. Despite an intensive search, neither the bodies nor the plane were sighted. But ten years later the wreckage was found. Both the bodies of Barilko and Hudson were found, strapped in their seats, dead. Despite a plethora of clues and theories, no definitive explanation of the tragedy has been offered.