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The Rocket was peerless in the playoffs

There have been many outstanding playoff performers over the years. In recent years this includes the gritty role-players (Claude Lemieux comes to mind, along with Kris Draper in Detroit), the great goaltending performances (Roy, Hasek, Brodeur) and of course, the big scorers.

In recent times we think of Crosby and Ovechkin carrying their teams. They are outstanding players, big-game athletes. This year it may be the peaking Sedin twins who will stand out and lead the Canucks offensively. Years ago it was Sakic and Forsberg and Hejduk in Colorado.  Before them it was Gretzky, Kurri, Messier and Glenn Anderson with the Oilers, Bossy and Trottier with the great early ‘80s Islander teams and Lafleur and Shutt in the 1970s for the Habs.

When I was really young, in the 1950s, the playoff hero more often than not was Montreal’s “Rocket” Richard. In truth, I was too young in the late ‘50s to fully appreciate his skills under pressure, and the further truth is that, by the time I was able to really watch and understand, he was a shadow of his earlier self. He was often injured his last two seasons and overweight—not the dominant player and scorer he was in his prime from the mid-1940s to about 1958.

How good was Richard when it mattered? Well, when he retired, no one was close to his all-time playoff goal-scoring record of 82, though his record has been surpassed by a number of players since.

As good as Richard was (he also retired in the fall of 1960 as the NHL’s regular-season career leader in goals, with 544), he was renowned for his playoff exploits. He helped Montreal win 8 Cups, including a still-record 5 in a row in the late ‘50s.

Richard (shown above in a game in the late 1950s taking a backhand against Glenn Hall) was known for his play inside the opposing team’s blueline. He was driven to score goals. I believe he rarely if ever used a real ‘slapshot’ in his life, as that technique was just gaining prominence toward the end of his career. He used the classic wrist shot, and he would get the puck away quickly. He scored a lot on the backhand and a number of his goals were scored after he had bulled his way past a defenseman and broke in on the goalie with a late fake as he tucked the puck into the net. My father spoke to me often of how the Rocket would “carry a guy on his back” as he was swooping in on the goalie. That sounds rather like a myth, but I’ve had that corroborated by a few of Richard’s teammates who I have interviewed over the years.

Six of his astounding 82 playoff goals (in only 133 games) were overtime winners. His most famous may have been against Boston’s Sugar Jim Henry in 1951-’52 (I believe that was the year). Some readers may have actually seen this happen, I can only recount what my Dad told me about that night. Richard was apparently knocked out during the seventh game of the series and though he had undoubtedly received a concussion, he insisted on returning to play in the overtime period. While evidently still groggy, he was able to skate around a good defenseman, Hall-of-Famer Bill Quackenbush, hold him off and deke Henry to score the dramatic winner in overtime. (If I’m not mistaken, Henry was playing with a broken nose.) The Roger St. Jean photograph (right) of Henry and Richard shaking hands after the game captures a classic hockey memory.

Someone will emerge as a scoring hero this spring and they will receive their due attention. But there aren’t many in the last 60 years who have come close to Richard’s consistent offensive brilliance in the playoffs.

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