The Chicago Blackhawks and Boston Bruins split the first two games of the 2013 Stanley Cup Finals, each winning a game in overtime. The last time this happened was in the 1951 NHL playoffs, featuring two hard working underdog teams in the Toronto Maple Leafs and Montreal Canadiens. Every single game in this series went in to overtime and the Stanley Cup celebration was cut short following a mysterious tragedy.
Entering the 1951 NHL Playoffs
Going in to the 1951 playoffs, the defending Stanley Cup champion Detroit Red Wings roared in at 1st place seeking a repeat performance with a slightly altered roster and rookie goaltender Terry Sawchuk. He played like no rookie goaltender, putting up a 1.98 goals against average and registering 7 shutouts in 70 games. He won the Calder Trophy as rookie of the year as well. Legendary forwards Gordie Howe, Sid Abel, Ted Lindsay and offensive defenseman Leonard “Red” Kelly led the vaunted attack
The 2nd place Toronto Maple Leafs stormed in to the playoffs only 6 points behind the Wings, under new head coach and retired Leafs centerman Joe Primeau. The Maple Leafs significantly improved with the addition of new center Tod Sloan putting up 56 points, a return to form for Cal Gardner playing a full season with the team, and improved offensive production from Max Bentley. This season marked the beginning of the end of goaltender Walter “Turk” Broda’s (Barney Stinson’s all time favorite NHL player) career in the NHL, as he split regular season games with newcomer Al Rollins.
The Montreal Canadiens were in the middle of a Stanley Cup drought (by their standards) having not won it since 1946 and continued slipping in the standings down to 3rd place by the end of the ’51 season. This is partly due to drops in production from Billy Reay, Norm Dessault, and the retirement of 6 consecutive Vezina winning goaltender Bill Durnan, who was replaced by Gerry McNeil.
The Boston Bruins slipped in to the 4th and final playoff slot by just 1 point over the New York Rangers. The B’s were still led by Milt Schmidt, Woody Dumart, and Johnny Peirson. They received significant contributions from journeymen Bill Ezinicki, Lorne Ferguson, Dunc Fisher, and goaltender Jack Gelineau who only played 2 full seasons in the NHL.
The Chicago Black Hawks tanked, only winning 2 games during the 2nd half of the regular season following multiple significant injuries to their roster.
1951 Stanley Cup Playoffs: The First Round
The first round featured the Bruins taking on the Leafs and the Red Wings taking on the Canadiens.
The Bruins and Leafs played a highly physical series, which resulted in a multitude of injuries. The Leafs Al Rollins started in goal in the first game, but left them game after straining a knee ligament due to a collision. For Boston, Schmidt worsened an ailing knee problem and defenseman Steve Kraftcheck hurt his knee as well. Max Quackenbush ended up with two injured wrists.
The underdog and injury riddled Bruins had a surprisingly good start to the series, winning 2 to 0, then in game 2 the Bruins forced overtime. Oddly enough at the end of the first overtime, the rest of the game was cancelled due to a Toronto area curfew law that prohibited another period from starting after midnight. The Leafs easily handled the Bruins in the next 4 games, with none other than team captain Ted Kennedy scoring the series clinching goal.
The cup favorite Red Wings were quickly reminded how playoff hockey is far more intense than the regular season as the Canadiens forced them to quadruple overtime in game 1 at home. The Habs Maurice Richard scored after intercepting a neutral zone pass and skating around the two Wings defense.
The following game went in to triple overtime tied at 0, with the Canadiens coming out on top again. Miraculously the Red Wings recovered from these two devastating losses, winning both games 3 and 4 in the Montreal Forum. After that, the Canadiens reached another gear and defeated Detroit in six games.
1951 NHL Playoffs: The Finals
The ’51 Stanley Cup finals between Toronto and Montreal was one of the most highly anticipated series in the “Original Six era” and is often looked upon by the period’s contemporary observers as some of the best hockey ever played.
In game 1, the Leafs initially led 2 to 1, but the Canadiens Paul Masnick tied the game at 2, which led to overtime. The Leafs, Sid Smith scored in overtime. Game 2 also went in to overtime tied at 2, but the Habs reversed the script with Richard scoring the game winner.
Game 3 in Montreal saw Richard score in the first period, but the Leafs would comeback in regulation from yet another goal by Smith, then Kennedy scoring the OT game winner. In game 4, the Canadiens saw themselves down by a goal 2 to 1 in the third period. Facing a serious deficit if they lose the game, Elmer Lach ties the game for Montreal in the 3rd period. Yet again in overtime the Leafs found a way to prevail through a goal by Harry Watson.
With their backs against the wall in game 5 in Maple Leaf Gardens, the Canadiens willed their way to score first with a goal by Richard. Sloan tied the game for the Leafs before the end of the 2nd period. During the 3rd period, Montreal peppered the Leafs goal and finally Paul Meger scored giving the Habs a thin lead.
The Biggest Moment of the 1951 NHL Playoffs
With only seconds remaining in the third period, the Leafs had an offensive zone faceoff. Kennedy won the faceoff, slid the puck across the slot with players on both teams crashing the net. Smith got the puck on his stick with no shot, but was able to slide it over to the open Sloan who had an open net to fire it in to tying the game yet again!
Then in overtime, a new Leafs legend was born.
Young Leafs defenseman Bill Barilko scored the cup winning goal 2 minutes and 53 seconds in to the first overtime. This was his fourth Stanley Cup in 5 seasons and was on top of the hockey world with this cup clinching shot.
A Tragic Ending to the 1951 NHL Playoffs
This feel good ending came to a sudden and unfortunate end when Barilko and close friend Dr. Henry Hudson never returned from a flight on a small private plane the two of them used for fishing trip in August of 1951. Due to Barilko’s popularity, expansive aerial searches scoured the regions for months where it was suspected their plane could have crashed. Nothing was found.
Following this tragedy, the Maple Leafs began a lengthy Stanley Cup drought. The failed to even reach the final in the six team league until 1959 and 1960, where they came up short both times to the Canadiens.
Finally, in 1962 George “Punch” Imlach coached the Leafs to their first Stanley Cup victory since ’51. Only six weeks after this cup victory, the remains of Bill Barilko and the plane wreckage were finally found just north of Cochrane, Ontario.
Canadian rock band Tragically Hip wrote a song regarding this incident called “Fifty Mission Cap.”
With 3 of the 4 games played so far in the 2013 Stanley Cup finals won in overtime and the series tied at 2, this year’s cup final could surpass the 1951 Stanley Cup series as one of the closely matched in the history of the game.
This article was originally published in June, 2013.