You don’t have to be very old to remember how painful it was for Leaf fans in the spring of 1993. We were “this close” to getting past Wayne Gretzky and the LA Kings and earn the opportunity to play Montreal in the Stanley Cup finals for the first time since 1967.
That would have been a tremendous match-up between two storied franchises -and between two very different and competitive fan bases.
The Leafs had played the Habs in the playoffs twice in the late 1970s, the ‘hey day’ of Sittler, McDonald, Tiger Williams, Salming and Palmateer, but the Leafs really weren’t deep enough to be competitive. They were swept both years in four games.
The ’93 series that never happened would have been particularly neat for those who us who remember the intensely bitter Leaf-Montreal rivalry in the ‘60s- when both teams were strong. You really never knew how the series would turn out.
That decade saw the two teams hook up six times in the playoffs. Of course the odds of that happening were much higher in those days when there were only six teams until expansion took hold in 1967-’68. But those ‘60s series were, for the most part, great hockey.
1960 series Montreal wins four games to none in the finals
In 1960, the Leafs were just building the team that was going to go on to be awfully good through a good chunk of the ‘60s. But the Habs were still an immensely talented group and that was with Rocket Richard not playing a great deal. (He did score his 82nd and last playoff goal on a backhand at the Gardens against Johnny Bower in game 3 or 4, I can’t remember which.) If I’m not mistaken, Beliveau was hurt in that series, though that may have been the year before. (I was only six at the time so my memory is pretty sketchy on that one.)
The Habs had Jacques Plante in goal, Hall-of-Famers Doug Harvey and Tom Johnson as the backbone of the defense and more forwards than they needed. Henri Richard was in his youthful prime and they also had Ralph Backstrom and Phil Goyette up the middle. With all the other stars they had—Dickie Moore and Bernie Geoffrion among them- they were tough.
Montreal won in four straight, for their 5th Cup in a row—still an NHL record.
1963 series Toronto wins in 5 games in the semi-finals
The balance of strength had shifted since the two teams last met in 1960. The Leafs were coming off their best season in what I’ll call the modern era—they finished first overall in the regular season. They haven’t done so since.
They were at their absolute peak: Bower in goal, Horton, Stanley, Baun and Brewer on the back end with a wonderful combination of center depth (Kelly, Keon, Pulford and Harris) with scorers in Duff and Mahovlich and grit with Nevin, Shack, Ron Stewart and the Captain, George Armstrong.
While Montreal still had Beliveau, Richard and Backstrom at center and Plante in goal, they weren’t as strong on the blueline at that point and lacked a bit of depth on the wings. Toronto won the first three games of the series. Montreal staved off a sweep in Game 4 at the Forum, but the Leafs hammered the Habs back at the Gardens in Game 5 (we’ve included a picture above from Game 5) by something like 5-1.
1964 series Toronto wins in 7 games in the semi-finals
By this time, the Habs “rebuild” was in full swing and they were expected to beat the Leafs in the first round of the playoffs.
The Leafs had struggled during the regular season, so much so that Punch Imlach traded away Dickie Duff and Bob Nevin and some really good juniors for Andy Bathgate and Don McKenney.
The series went back and forth, with Toronto winning Game 6 in Toronto 3-0 to force a seventh and deciding game at the Forum in Montreal. That became a night that has lived on in Leaf lore since, as Keon (who hadn’t scored in the series to that point) netted three goals, the last into an empty net, to help the Leafs win a nail-biter 3-1.
The Leafs went on to win their third Cup in a row.
1965 series Montreal wins four games to two
It was probably too much to ask that the Leafs would not only beat Montreal again in the playoffs but go on to win a fourth consecutive Stanley Cup.
The teams split the first four games, with Keon scoring in overtime in Game 3 at the Gardens to keep the Leafs in the series. But Montreal won game 5 at home, and Toronto couldn’t hold a lead in Game 6. I remember listening to the game on the radio when Montreal scored in overtime in Game 6. I believe it was either Claude Provost or Gilles Tremblay who scored for Montreal. Doesn’t matter. The string of Stanley Cups was over, and Montreal went on to win the Cup that spring.
1966 series Montreal win four games to none
The “worst” series between the two teams in the ‘60s was the one that was played in 1966. Montreal was a power and Toronto, while still a fairly decent team, could not cope with Montreal, who not only had immense skill but toughness in Ted Harris and John Ferguson.
The Habs won the series going away, and while the Leafs put up a nominal—and literal—fight in Game 4 (there was a big brawl), there was no doubt Montreal was the better side. The Habs went on to win the Cup in the finals against Detroit.
1967 Toronto wins four games to two in the finals
The Leafs finished third in the regular season despite an agonizing 10-game losing streak that sent Imlach to hospital with exhaustion.
Chicago had been the best team in the league by far, but the Leafs, after losing in a blowout in Game 1, came back to win four out of the next five games to upset the Hawks.
This set up the finals with Montreal, and I’m pretty sure no one other than (some) hopeful Leaf fans believed the Leafs—an old team on their way down after their early ‘60s success- could beat Montreal in a 7-game series.
Things looked bleak when Montreal absolutely blasted the Leafs in game 1, but Toronto rebounded behind Johnny Bower to win Game 2 in Montreal. In the third game of the series back in Toronto, Bower was remarkable and Pulford scored in double overtime.
That said, Beliveau and Ferguson led a charge in Game 4. Sawchuk was in goal because Bower was hurt and he was awful- and so were the Leafs.
Everyone—fans, analysts—assumed the Leafs were done.
But lo and behold, and I remember it well, Game 5 was played on a Saturday afternoon back at the Forum in Montreal. It was played in the afternoon so it could be shown on U.S. television. I have no idea if this helped the Leafs, but they outplayed a flat Montreal team and ended up winning by something like 4-1.
This set up Game 6 back in Toronto on Tuesday, May 2.
Game 6 was a great game—everything you could hope for—low scoring, with hitting and tons of scoring chances despite the tight checking. If you haven’t seen it on Leafs TV, it’s worth watching if you ever get the chance. There was, as you would expect, a lot of tension in the building. Leaf fans knew the odds of Toronto going back to Montreal and winning for a third time at the Forum weren’t good at all.
The Leafs had Sawchuk in goal and he was amazing- playing like he did in his prime in the 1950s. The best Leaf line in the series was Stemkowski, Pappin and Pulford, but everyone contributed. Ellis scored on a rebound against Gump Worsley (rookie Rogie Vachon had played the first five games of the series for the Habs) to give the Leafs a 1-0 lead, then Pappin scored a fluky one off a Montreal defenseman to give Toronto a 2-0 heading into the third.
About mid-way through the third period, former Leaf Dickie Duff made an absolutely brilliant solo rush up the wing, deking Horton (or maybe it was Stanley) and beating Sawhuck.
From that point on, the Leafs were clinging to a 2-1 lead.
Everyone has heard about the big face-off in the Toronto end with less than a minute to go, when Imlach sent out the “old” guys—Stanley, Horton, Kelly, Pulford and Armstrong- on to the ice.
You can say Stanley either won the draw or at least pushed it through big Beliveau. Somehow Kelly nicked it over to Pulford (I think) who fed a breaking Armstrong—who made it past the red line before shooting it into the empty net.
The Leafs had no business, on paper, winning the series, but hey, it’s the last Cup we’ve had, so thank goodness it went our way.
Montreal had won in 1965 and ’66 and went on to win the Cup eight times in the next dozen or so years.
As for the Leafs, we all know the rest of the story.
But looking back fondly, regardless of who won a particular series, those 1960s playoff match-ups with Montreal were outstanding—and made for a lot of fun and anxiety—for Leaf fans across the country.