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Playoff memories: Lanny’s was great in '78, but Harrison’s OT winner in ’72 against the Bruins was amazing, too

Those of us old enough to not only remember but really fully appreciate when the Leafs were champions in the 1960s can also painfully remember the many disappointments that have cropped up in the years since that last Cup in 1967.

Modern-era Leaf supporters well remember that Pat Burns led to Maple Leafs to two final-four appearances in the early-mid 1990s, and Pat Quinn did the same later, in 1999 and 2002.

But that’s as close as the Leafs have come to getting a shot at even the Stanley Cup finals, much less actually winning a championship.

Now, those seasons under Burns and Quinn aside, every once in a while they’ve had their moments, including in the playoffs.  I tried to make this point in my post a while back:  the Leafs haven’t always been lousy (click on the link to read more...).

Specific highlights?  Maybe the biggest goal in modern-day Leaf history (again, discounting the years I mentioned above, including when Borschevsky scored that memorable overtime winner against the Wings in '93!) was Lanny McDonald’s famous Game 7 winner against the then powerful New York Islanders in the spring of 1978.

The Leafs were decided underdogs going into that series, and even more so after losing the first two games of the series—and also losing star defenseman Borje Salming to a serious eye injury.

But the Leafs battled back.  Ian Turnbull played as well as he ever had.  Sittler, Tiger Williams and the hard-working role-players who thrived under coach Roger Neilson forced a seventh game in the series, and were tied with the Islanders heading into overtime.  McDonald beat Glenn “Chico” Resch, and Leaf fans (myself included, living and working up in Sault Ste. Marie at the time) were shocked and exultant.

That was a wonderful memory, but for me, it was almost as big (bigger in a sense) when the Leafs won a game in overtime in their series against the “Big Bad” Boston Bruins in April of 1972.

The Bruins were the best team in hockey at the time.  They had won the Cup in 1970, lost in an upset to Montreal and Ken Dryden in 1971—after setting goal scoring records that season that may still stand.  The Bruins were loaded.  They had Bobby Orr on defense, along with Don Awrey, Ted Green, Dallas Smith and Rick Smith, all dependable, tough guys. 

Up front they were a machine.  The offensive juggernaut revolved around Orr and center Phil Esposito, a support guy in his early years with the Blackhawks, who was the offensive star in Beantown, the ultimate triggerman.  But they also had Derek Sanderson, Fred Stanfield and Mike Walton who could play center.  They could all skate.

Future Hall-of-Famer John Bucyk was a power-play fixture on the wing.  Wayne Cashman was rugged and very effective, as was Ken Hodge, Johnny McKenzie and others.  Their “role” players were some of the best in the game, including Eddie Westfall and Don Marcotte.

So it’s no surprise they won the Cup in ’72 as well, but first had to beat the Leafs in the quarter-finals.

The Leafs at the time were building a pretty good young team under General Manager Jim Gregory.  I’ve written about Gregory’s fingerprints on the blue and white during this unfortunately short-lived era.  They still had veterans Norm Ullman and Dave Keon as their key centers, with tough Jim Harrison as the third-line guy in the middle.  (In the Dan Baliotti photo at right, you can see Harrison in an early '70s photo, setting up shop where he liked to stand:  right in the crease, in this instance, against the Blues.) They also had speedy Paul Henderson (before his Team Canada fame), Ron Ellis and some good foot soldiers.  But most importantly, they had a really young defense corps including Rick Ley, Brian Glennie, Brad Selwood and Mike Pelyk.  (Tough and talented Jim Dorey had been traded by then.) 

The Bruins had little trouble in Game 1 at the old, cramped and intimidating Boston Garden, as they hammered the Leafs by a big score, as I recall.

However, in the very next game, also in Boston, the Leafs played a much better game.  They were better defensively, skated with the Bruins and kept the high-scoring Bruins in check.  I was shocked that the Leafs actually managed to get the game into overtime.

But that paled in comparison to my reaction when, in the first overtime period, Harrison (who the Leafs had acquired during the 1969-‘70 season from those same Bruins), from just inside the blueline, took a short-backswing slapshot and beat the Bruin goaltender, who I believe was Eddie Johnston at the time.  I think Johnston (pictured at right in his very early days with the Bruins) was caught back in his net, and was surprised by Harrison’ quick, heavy shot which beat him high.

It was a shock.  The Leafs had upset the tough Bruins in their own backyard.  And in overtime no less.

Within seconds (and I mean seconds), I ran to the only phone in our old rural house and called a high school buddy, another devoted Leaf fan.  It was past 11 o’clock at night, but I didn’t care who I was waking up in his family.  We talked excitedly about whether the Leafs could actually go on to upset the Bruins in the series, given that they had “stolen” one right in Boston.

Unfortunately, the Leafs came out flat in Game 3 at home and lost 2-0.  In Game 4, they actually had a 4-2 lead and were decidedly outplaying the Bruins .  Paul Henderson had a clear-cut breakaway with an opportunity to make it 5-2, but was stopped.  The Bruins came back to win 5-4, and while the Leafs made it close in Game 5 back in Boston, the series ended without another Leaf victory.

But for one special moment, Harrison’s marker, at Boston Garden, took down the mighty Bruins of Bobby Orr.

And it felt good—really good.  The kind of feeling you only get when your team does something special in the playoffs.


  1. As a Bruins' fan, I remember this game well and I was just as shocked as you were. I enjoy reading about this from the "other" perspective. Thanks.

    1. Thanks Silvio. The Bruins won the series, of course, but I thought the Leafs gave them a pretty good series, despite the remarkable array of talent Boston had. Glad you found the site!

  2. I was actually looking for a game from the 1974 Bruins-Maple Leafs series. Ken Hodge won a game in overtime, and I have never seen that highlight. Really haven't read much about it either. If you have anything or know where I can find it, I would appreciate it. Sorry for all the pain you have had since '67, but I know that kind of agony -- and it never leaves. 1979 seventh game vs. Montreal.

    1. The '74 series gets lost a bit, at least from the Leaf side of things. I've shared memories here of how well Doug Favell played in the first game of the series for Toronto, but there wasn't much tow rite home about beyond that for Leaf supporters. If I ever come across the Hodge highlight, I'll send a note here.

      I've also written here about the Hab-Boston '79 series (Game 7, as you note). I was at the Forum that night. I felt the Bruins deserved to win.

  3. Have never gotten over it; same with Red Sox in '86 vs. Mets. The pain of losing stays with you longer than the joy of winning. Doesn't keep me from being less of a fan, but that's my truth.

    1. I don't think you're alone, Silvio- not that that offers much solace. Whether it's in our own (in my case pretty modest) sports careers, or in rooting for the teams and players we love, we remember the losses- especially the games we feel we/our team should have won.

  4. I just like the fact that we can converse without the hatred and stupidity found all over the internet. The lack of civility and decency makes it hard for people to have give and take. While I loathe the Canadiens on one level, the rivalry has life because we each want to beat the other so badly. Have full respect for so many of their greats -- most notably Jean Beliveau, Yvan Cournoyer, Jacques Lemaire, Larry Robinson and Ken Dryden. Beliveau is the classiest superstar ever.

    1. I share there same feeling and point of view that you do, Silvio. I truly "hated", in sporting terms, the Habs (and later, the "Big Bad Bruins" and the "Broad Street Bullies"), but I have immense respect for so many of those former greats, including Beliveau. I've tried to develop a site here that fosters that kind of respectful discussion to this day.

  5. Thought you might enjoy seeing this column on the left that was in the Montreal Gazette the day Hank Aaron broke Babe Ruth's home run record. Unless you have better eyes than me, you won't be able to read it thoroughly, but the subject matter is germane.

    1. Thanks Silvio- my Dad was a devoted Yankee (and Hab) fan and of course loved Ruth and all the great old Yankees. Hank Aaron was such a marvellous player. I'll read the story!