Game ticket ($15!) courtesy Erle Schneidman, canadiensmemorabilia.com
Since it’s been brought up by visitors to Habs Inside/Out, I’ve retrieved a feature senior Gazette hockey writer Red Fisher wrote during the 2004-05 NHL lockout, one in a series of his top 10 moments during more than five decades on the NHL beat.
Red ranks the 1975 New Year’s Eve game at the Forum between the Canadiens and the Soviet Union’s Central Red Army No. 5 on that list. Here’s how Red viewed the game; his ranking of 1-10 appears at the bottom.
Almost 29 years after The Game, people are still calling it the greatest ever played. It had all of the ingredients: the Stanley Cup Canadiens playing at their best against the Central Red Army team with all of its great stars from the 1972 Summit Series. Who could ask for more, eh?
Question: does it even come close to that accolade? When the Canadiens outshoot the Soviets 38-13 in a 3-3 skirmish, holding them to four shots in the first period, three in the second and six in the third, they were as near-perfect as any team can be. Call it a highlight-reel game for the Canadiens, but when the most important position on any hockey team springs leaks, "greatest" is hardly the word for it.
It’s not that Ken Dryden wasn’t prepared for this exhibition. In the hours before it, he did all of the right things.
Friends and relatives had started to arrive for the much-anticipated 1975 New Year’s Eve game, so the Canadiens goaltender checked into a downtown hotel to avoid distractions. His head was clear and he was well-rested during the team warmup.
Early in the second period, he stopped doing all of the right things.
If he had played like the Dryden who had gone into the game with a remarkable 1.79 goals-against average in his first 31 games of the NHL season, he would not have been beat three times on 13 shots – two of the goals coming early and late from the Red Army’s three second-period shots. If he had been vintage Dryden, he would not have allowed the only goal of the third period, during which the Canadiens outshot the Soviets 16-6 in a mismatch that had them holding a 2-0 lead fewer than eight minutes into the game and a 3-1 lead midway through the second period.
The stunned Forum crowd knew it. Dryden knew it.
Much later, after a dejected Dryden had faced a blizzard of questions from a media horde, only he and a longtime newspaper friend were at his dressing-room stall.
"Happy New Year, Ken," he was told.
"Same to you," he said with a heavy sigh.
"You screwed up, pal," I said.
"I’m disappointed … very disappointed," Dryden said. "I don’t believe in luck … good or bad. You make your own. The team played so well. Everybody … but on the first goal (Boris Mikhailov) and on the third (Boris Aleksandrov), the puck hits the base of my hand, falls to the ice and then rolls over the line. I can remember so many times when the puck fell and just stayed there. That’s what was so disappointing.
"The last couple of days haven’t been easy, you know," he added. "So many things on our minds … but we played so well. I wish I could have done better."
Dryden, the player, never took defeat and/or criticism lightly, so for this Hall of Fame goaltender to say: "I wish I could have done better" is as far as he’s ever gone to admit he hadn’t brought his "A" game that night.
The Habs deserved infinitely better, because on this night they made the Soviet Superman Theory look like Swiss cheese. Holes everywhere.
What was it everybody was saying about the Brothers Kharlamov? They skate too fast for NHL opposition, right? Wrong. They were outskated from start to finish. And, oh yes: they control the puck in their zone. The fact is, the Soviets made errant passes all night. That couldn’t have been Alexsandr Gusev, Vladimir Lutchenko and Valeri Vasilyev piling error upon error.
Don’t take penalties, because the Soviet power play is deadly. Hmph! Three times they held man advantages, yet didn’t get a shot against the fierce-checking Canadiens.
They don’t miss scoring opportunities, scoring on their fifth, seventh and ninth shots, but a Dryden playing reasonably well would not have allowed more than one goal.
Soviet goaltending (see Vladislav Tretiak) is brilliant.
If anything, that was an understatement on this holiday night. He was incredible, at times. The stops he made against Jacques Lemaire during the first and last minutes of the third period were astonishing.
How lopsided was this game? Steve Shutt and Yvon Lambert were the Canadiens’ goal-scorers before the game was eight minutes old, while the Soviets didn’t get their first shot until 9:46. Yvan Cournoyer lifted his colleagues into a 3-1 lead midway through the second. Still, coach Scott Bowman – who hated to lose or even tie – was grinning from earlobe to earlobe after it was over.
"How’s that for a team effort?" he asked. "This team was ready. This team worked. This team did everything it had to do. It’s true we should have won, and that’s a little disappointing. I’m proud of this team."
He had to be proud of kids like Doug Risebrough, Mario Tremblay, Lambert, Doug Jarvis and Bob Gainey. He had to be proud of the entire defence corps, Serge Savard in particular.
Bowman, of course, knew that better goaltending would have won. "Ken didn’t get much work. All right … he wasn’t great, but those things happen."
He also knew that anything less than Tretiak’s brilliance would have provided the Canadiens with at least a half-dozen goals. So did players such as Guy Lapointe.
"They told us how much better-conditioned the Soviets are," Lapointe said. "Maybe they are, but I played this game and didn’t feel tired for a minute. Most of the time we had to wait for them. We didn’t have to chase them. The score doesn’t say so, but everybody knows which was the much better team."
The Canadiens went into the game dedicated to applying pressure in the Red Army’s zone, and it returned early dividends on the Shutt and Lambert goals. The remarkable thing about the game plan, though, was its exquisite execution. The Soviets were allowed only one three-on-two break and one two-on-one situation during the entire game and scored each time with shots that should have been stopped.
Red Fisher’s Top 10 Moments, a personal ranking of games he has covered during more than five decades on the NHL beat for the Montreal Star and Gazette:
10. Referee Red Storey quits the NHL after a 1959 playoff game between the Canadiens and Blackhawks in which he had to deal with irate Chicago fans, followed by criticism from league president Clarence Campbell.
9. The Boston Bruins were on their way to victory over the Canadiens in Game 7 of the 1979 Stanley Cup semifinals when a late too-many-men-on-the-ice penalty winds up costing them the game, which Montreal wins on an overtime goal by Yvon Lambert.
8. Bruins boss Tom Johnson’s decision to bench goalie Gerry Cheevers in favour of Eddie Johnston for a 1971 playoff game against the Canadiens results in the mother of all meltdowns as Boston blows a 5-2 third-period lead.
7. Rookie goaltender Ken Dryden is a surprise playoff starter and leads the Canadiens to victory over Chicago in Game 7 of the 1971 Stanley Cup final.
6. Goaltender Patrick Roy leads the Canadiens on an incredible journey to their 24th Stanley Cup in 1993, including 10 overtime victories.
5. Despite being outshot 38-13, the Soviets, led by goalie Vladislav Tretiak, battle to a 3-3 tie at the Forum on New Year’s Eve 1975 in what some call the greatest game ever played.
4. On Nov. 1, 1959, after being hit in the face with a shot and suffering a savage cut, goalie Jacques Plante, hockey’s greatest innovator, returns to the ice wearing a mask for protection.
3. The 1961 playoff game between the Canadiens and Blackhawks in Chicago, which Red calls "the greatest game among the thousands I’ve seen." Goalies Jacques Plante and Glenn Hall were the stars as the Blackhawks won 2-1 in triple overtime.
2. The Richard Riot on St. Patrick’s Day 1955, when fans at the Forum responded to NHL president Clarence Campbell’s decision days earlier to suspend Maurice (Rocket) Richard for the final week of the season and the playoffs after a savage stick-swinging duel with Boston defenceman Hal Laycoe.
1. Paul Henderson scores the winning goal in the dying moments of Game 8 in the historic 1972 Summit Series between Team Canada and the U.S.S.R.