It's playoff time, still in the second round, and I've posted off and on on some old-time playoff memories this spring. It's always fun to look back at times when the blue and white experienced legitimate playoff success.
As we have discussed previously on this site, the Leafs under Punch Imlach were building a strong hockey club in the late 1950’s with veterans they had acquired (Allan Stanley and Larry Regan, for example) and youngsters like Duff, Mahovlich, Baun and Brewer.
In 1959-’60 and then 1960-’61, they added some significant pieces- veteran Red Kelly in a trade with Detroit and later rookies Bob Nevin and Dave Keon.
They had a strong regular season and played the Detroit Red Wings in the first round of the playoffs in March of 1961. The Leafs had earned home ice advantage. (Keep in mind we were still very much in the then standard six-team NHL.)
Personally, I was looking forward to the series because it was probably the first time I was truly old enough to (almost) fully appreciate being a fan of a team. I was born in the fall of 1953 and while I was “cheering” for the Leafs in previous years and have some random memories from the late ‘50s, I don’t think I had a strong awareness of at least some of the nuances of the game until that 1961 season.
In Game 1 of the 1961 series, the Leafs and Wings were tied at the end of regulation. I had watched the game on television, but when it went into overtime, I remember that I went to bed, but did so in my family’s living room couch, where I could still listen to the game on the radio. (I can’t remember if I stopped watching because I was nervous—which I know I always was when Leaf games went into overtime—or because my mom had indicated it was way past my bed time. I was 7 going on 8 at the time. It was likely 11 o’clock or later, as Leaf home games started at 8pm in those days.)
Whatever, I was so excited when George Armstrong scored to enable the Leafs to grab the lead in the series. (I can’t tell you off the top of my head if it was in the first or second overtime.) As Bill Hewitt would have been doing the TV broadcast, I’m guessing that I was listening to his Dad, Foster, on the radio at that point. Unlike today, when you would see the goal replayed a hundred times by the next morning, I never had a clue how Armstrong scored until I watched the game again on Leafs TV in recent years. It was a beauty of a goal, as he was sent in alone and fired a quick wrist shot past future Hall-of-Famer Terry Sawchuk. (Check out the great old late '50s photo of Armstrong and a very young Frank Mahovlich at right.)
A side note here. Readers a bit older than I may recall that, in one of the playoff games against
(either the spring of ’59 or ’60, I’m not certain which year), Armstrong scored a goal that didn’t count. It went right through a hole in the net apparently, but without replay like we have today, the ref and goal judge missed it. The Leafs would have lost the series anyway, but they might have won that particular playoff game, at least. Interestingly, I remember that I was sitting in the Gardens' press box in 1977, during the playoff series against the Flyers, when Armstrong walked by, talking with the Toronto Sun's Jim Hunt about that famous "non-goal" against Montreal.) Montreal
But unfortunately for the Leafs and their hopeful fans, the 1961 series went downhill after Game 1. The Wings won the next game in
, and went on to wrap up the series in 5 games. Toronto
At the time it seemed devastating, in hockey cheering terms, but looking back, it was a case of the Leafs taking one more step back to move two steps forward. The Leafs had made it to the finals the previous two years, only to lose both times to
. Losing to the Wings was a setback, sure, but the Leafs were clearly a hungry, emerging team and they came back to win the Cup for the next three years. Montreal
Certain goals just seem to stand out, particularly goals in the playoffs and especially goals in overtime. (I'm sure some young fan in Nashville will remeber Joel Ward's performance in this year's playoffs...) In the eyes of a young seven year-old, the Armstrong marker is one of the first “big” overtime goals that I remember distinctly as a Leaf fan, even though I didn't "see" it. I’ve never forgotten it, though it was the only game the Maple Leafs won in the playoffs that spring.