Monday, April 5, 2010

April 5 1970 – A Close Race Leaves Habs on the Outside

StandingsThe 1969-70 NHL season saw the previously last-place Chicago Blackhawks soar to the top of the East. The two-time defending Stanley Cup champion Canadiens would not make the playoffs.

The 1969-70 NHL regular season might have had the most bizarre finale in league history.

The league’s Eastern Division composed of the Original Six squads and the West made up of the Expansion Six. With the established teams clustered together, it made the standings appear rather lopsided.

The Eastern Division had five teams with 90 or more points going into the final two games. Five points separated leading Boston and Detroit from the fifth place Rangers. The Toronto Maple Leafs were well back and out of playoff contention.

Calculations made on a computer had  a reported 125 different possible scenarios for a final result in the standings. The fact all six teams played home-in home inter-division matchups added to the confusion.

The final Saturday saw the Detroit Red Wings clinch a playoff spot with a 6-2 win over the Rangers. Chicago took the Canadiens 4-1, while the Bruins beat the Leafs 4-2.

Now it was getting interesting. The Rangers were still two points back of fourth place Montreal. A Ranger win and a Montreal loss on Sunday would give them equal standing in points and wins.

The first tiebreaker at the time was wins, followed and by goals scored and then was goals against. New York had a seven goal advantage over Montreal in goals against, but the Canadiens had 242 to 237 goals for margin entering the final game.

New York would have to not only come out Sunday with a win and a Canadiens loss, but they would need to score five more goals than Montreal would to make the playoffs.

It would be an advantage would befall the Rangers.

Having clinched third place, and no way to move up on Chicago or Boston or down, Red Wings coach Sid Abel had already planned to sit his star players for most of Sunday’s game.

Some overnight celebrating by Gordie Howe and co. also left many a Red Wings player with a hangover on Sunday afternoon. Garry Unger even admitted to the celebrations during an between-period interview during the game.

crozier The Detroit Red Wings  Roger Crozier lays flat in his net during a 65-shot pelting from the New York Rangers 04/05/70 Photo: The Hockey Encyclopedia

The end result was a 65-shot battering of Red Wings goalie Roger Crozier and a 9-5 Rangers victory. Poor Crozier was not even expected to play the full game either, but backup Roy Edwards was in the training room suffering from “headaches and chest pains.”

The Canadiens players watched the game on national television that afternoon and were shocked and infuriated to see the Red Wings lay down like that.

A team that need five goal margin came out with nine. Now the Canadiens needed either a single point, or at least muster up five goals against a man who recorded 15 shutouts that season, Tony Esposito.

With Chicago still in the hunt for first place, there would be no laying down from the Blackhawks. For Esposito, who was left unprotected by the Canadiens in the 1969 inter-league draft, it would be an opportunity for some payback.

“One lousy point, gang, that’s all we need,” a frustrated John Ferguson said as Canadiens’ team bus made it’s way to Chicago Stadium. “Screw those other guys. We’ll do it ourselves.”

The Canadiens got on the board first, on a goal by Yvan Cournoyer. Chicago responded with goals from Pit Marin and Jim Pappin.

A 3-2 lead was not going to cut it after two periods. It didn’t help that the Blackhawks also had the outstanding goaltending of Esposito behind them.

Twice in the first two periods, Esposito came up big. First was a goal-mouth stop on Jean Beliveau and then a big stop on Henri Richard in the second. The latter stop was cited as a turning point by Canadiens coach Claude Ruel.

Word from Boston rolled in on the scoreboard with the Bruins leading 2-1 then finishing with a 3-1 victory over Toronto. That sent the Blackhawks going as Martin scored two more times in the first half of the third period.

It was then that Ruel got desperate. A win now seemed unlikely, and a tie was an outside shot. The Canadiens needed three goals to make the playoffs. Ruel pulled Vachon in an attempt to get those goals.

The netminder would be in goal only if there was as faceoff in the Montreal end, or after a Chicago goal. It failed miserably, much to the humour of the Chicago Stadium crowd, to the tune of five unanswered goals from the Blackhawks.

empty_net A shot of the empty Canadiens goal 04/05/70 – photo: The Hockey Encyclopedia

Down by an eight goal margin, Ruel humbly put his goalie back in the net to close out the last two minutes when Gerry Pinder scored the final goal.


The game was cited as a “black day for Canada” by the CBC announcer after the 10-2 final score. For the first time in 22 years, the Montreal Canadiens were not in the playoffs. Players across the NHL, including the rival and eventual champion Bruins were shocked to not see the Canadiens in the post-season.

“It was like a bad dream,” said Henri Richard, who had never missed a playoff in 14 years.

“It’s hard to blame the Red Wings because you can’t expect another team to help you if you can’t make the playoffs 75 games,” said injured Canadiens winger Mickey Redmond. “But they (Detroit) didn’t have to lay down and die.”

“We can’t blame Detroit for our problems, we have only to blame but ourselves,” said Ruel. “But They (Detroit) didn’t work at all.”

Who was too blame?

To say the Canadiens 1969-70 season was as Ruel called it, “a year of frustration.” might be spot on.

Much of the Canadiens playoff failure was pointed at Ruel, who was questioned on his leadership, handling of players and strategy making.

One of those in attendance in Chicago that Sunday night was then St. Louis Blues coach Scotty Bowman. “I think Montreal played too conservatively, looking for a tie,” he said. “That’s asking for a lot on Chicago ice. If the Canadiens had gone all-out offensively and forgotten defense, I think they’d have scored five.”

“The ship has foundered without the firm, confident hand of a Toe Blake, or Dick Irvin to steer it,” wrote Montreal Star columnist John Robertson. “In their place, a nice little guy turned bitter and confused, blaming the players for failing him.”

In fairness to Ruel, he had inherited a team from the legendary Blake the season prior. If that’s not pressure for a rookie coach, then what is? After the Canadiens clinched the Stanley Cup in the spring of 1969, the rookie coach was dead from exhaustion.

Midway through his sophomore season, Ruel had gone to GM Sam Pollock and told him that his hold on the players was failing.

“I can’t take it anymore Jean,” Ruel admitted to Beliveau as recalled in the Canadiens legend’s biography. “I want to go back to scouting. That’s where I’m happy.”

Pollock urged him to stay on, and he did.

Fingers pointed elsewhere as well. Pollock was criticized for trading future Hall of Famers Gump Worsley and Dick Duff, who battled both Ruel and personal problems, and for letting Esposito go for nothing.

“We blame ourselves. We lost. It’s not just one game, it’s a whole season that decides it,” said Pollock. “That’s the crux of the whole bloody thing.

Injuries also hampered the Canadiens throughout the 1969-70 season. Serge Savard, the Conn Smythe Trophy winner in 1969, missed the last dozen games with a broken leg. Ferguson missed 18 games via injuries or suspension, J.C. Tremblay had missed 17 games early in the season with a wrist injury. Beliveau and Richard also were out 13 and 14 games respectively from injuries.

There was also a collapse by the Canadiens between February 14 and March 8 that saw them win three of ten games.

But if anything was a sign of how bad the season went, it was the Canadiens home-in-home series against the Rangers the weekend prior to that fateful final game. The Canadiens salvaged just a tie from those two games (March 27 and 28) against New York.

“We picked up only one point in the last weekend of the schedule, against teams we had to beat,” said winger Claude Provost. “We hardly deserved to be in the playoffs.”


After much criticism from the ending to the regular season, the NHL restructured the tie-breaker format. After wins, the results of the head-to-head series between the two teams would be the second tie-breaker. Had that happened in April, 1970 the Canadiens would have won with a 4-3-1 record.

The next season Ruel was getting no further with his team and they were 11-8-4 in December. Pollock finally let him go, replacing him with Al McNeil, and the Canadiens went on to the Stanley Cup. Ruel stayed on as Director of Player Development and would return as coach in the 1979-80 season.

Related Articles:

Habs Eyes on the Prize


Montreal Gazette April 6, 1970

Beliveau, Jean (w Goyens Turowetz), Jean Beliveau: My Life in Hockey

Ferguson, John (w Stan and Shirley Fischler) – Thunder and Lightning

Jenish  D’Arcy, The Montreal Canadiens: 100 Years of Glory

Ronberg, Gary, The Hockey Encyclopedia

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