Offer this ending to any reputable movie scriptwriter and he would be perfectly justified if he punched you in the mouth: the sixth game of the most intriguing Stanley Cup hockey series in a decade is in its second overtime period. Flick goes the stick of Jean Beliveau, captain of the Montreal Canadiens and one of their last links with the famous teams of Rocket Richard and Doug Harvey. Zap goes the puck over the shoulder of Gerry Cheevers, goaltender of the Boston Bruins. Montreal wins the series; Beliveau, the idol of French Canada, moves a little bit nearer actual sainthood.
That is, of course, too pat to be believed, and of course that is exactly what happened at a quarter past midnight last Thursday in the Boston Garden. And the best thing about Beliveau is that he is in fact a paragon. Gentlemanly on the ice and off it, a miracle of modesty, a dutiful husband and a man whose loyalty to his team and its owners is unshakable, he has all the old-fashioned virtues.
As Beliveau demonstrated pretty clearly in the Boston series, he is the best hockey center who ever lived. Others have outscored him, others have looked flashier on the ice, but none has had his ability to be in the right place at the right time so consistently or to pass the puck with his remarkable accuracy.
Beliveau and his swift but light-hitting teammates were ideal foils to the pugnacious Bruins. It was a case of the saints against the sinners, and this was a bad April for sinners, starting way back on the 10th when the Canadiens began a two-game home sweep. The Bruins had the notion they had outplayed Montreal, and so they had, except on the scoreboard. When the Bruins in turn swept the next two games, in Boston, they honestly believed they would bring the Hub its first Stanley Cup championship since 1941.
Through the first four games the Bruins had sought to intimidate the Canadiens, some of whom would rather skate than fight. The trouble was, the Canadiens kept bouncing right back. As the series resumed in the Forum on Tuesday, Boston's Derek Sanderson was out of action with a charley horse, and Rogatien Vachon was in the Montreal goal again for the injured Lorne (Gump) Worsley. The Canadiens jumped to a 1-0 lead late in the first period and expanded it to 3-0 early in the second. But the Bruins came charging back, and before the period was over they had fired a record 26 shots on Vachon. Some teams do not get 26 shots in an entire game—indeed, Montreal was to manage but 25 in this one—but the Bruins swept through the Canadiens as if they were working a 20-minute power play. Of Boston's 26 shots, however, only two—both by Ken Hodge—got past Vachon. Chunky and sideburned, Vachon had been shaky during the regular season—so much so that he almost wound up in Houston—but, under heavy playoff pressure, he was both very good and very lucky. This was never more evident than in Vachon's confrontation with Phil Esposito, the record-setting point champion of the regular season. Esposito was getting more chances to score than one has in a pregame warmup. Blanked in the first two games in Montreal, he had come back with two goals and three assists in a Boston win, but now whatever eyes his stick had had were fogging up again. His futility reached a peak during that wild second period, in which he had six shots on goal and did not cash in a single one. "He had the puck so much I thought he owned it," said Vachon. " 'Every time I looked up, there he was, standing in front of me."
When the game was finally over, the Bruins had outshot Montreal 42-25 on the ice and lost 4-2 on the scoreboard. "In that second period," said Coach Harry Sinden afterward, "we had more chances to score than we did in our 10-0 win over Toronto to open the playoffs." Indeed Boston had—and the question hovering in the smoky air of many a Boston bar was, "What's wrong with Esposito?"
"The guy's choking," said one NHL scout. "What other reason can there be?"
"How can you say that?" said another scout. "How many goals did he get in the regular season—49? Are you going to tell me none of those goals came in big games? They play big games in the regular season too, you know."
"Yeah, but these are the playoffs."
From the seats it looked as if Esposito was trying to cut things too fine, that he was playing for the perfect shot instead of shooting on instinct. He was like the shortstop who comes up with a hard-hit grounder and takes an extra split second to make a perfect throw to first base—only to miss the runner by half a step.