It was about as demoralizing a loss as any team could suffer, and Francis had to use all the psychology at his command to keep the Rangers from collapsing completely. Somehow he succeeded, and they were not disgraced in the next two games, which the Canadiens won by 3-1 and 3-2 scores. The Rangers' performance in the final game—they checked more aggressively than they had since their giddy stay in first place last January—gave New York fans much to be proud of, but it also emphasized that, even at their very best, the Rangers were no match for the hot Canadiens.
Stanley Cups are usually won with depth and all-round team play. Clubs like Montreal and Toronto, equipped with three fairly equal lines and uniformly effective checkers, generally fare better than, say, Chicago with its superstars. In last week's other semifinal series, two of the Black Hawk leaders, Bobby Hull and Doug Mohns, were slowed by injuries, and their teammates faltered so badly that they faced possible elimination by an aging and inferior Toronto team that had finished 19 points behind them in the regular season. The Canadiens' destruction of the Rangers was accomplished without going too far into the reserves. The stars got the job done. The Canadiens' big men played superbly while the Rangers' leaders had trouble, and that was all the edge the winners needed.
Béliveau, Henri Richard and John Ferguson led an offense so strong it seemed incredible that, a few months ago, Montreal was the league's weakest-scoring club. "Early in the season our guys couldn't put the puck in the ocean," said Blake. "When you're only scoring one or two goals a game, you just can't afford mistakes. Now we can get four or five in a game, and one fluke goal by the other team won't beat us. That's the big change in this club."
While the forwards showed a new scoring punch and the defensemen overcame the erratic tendencies that hurt them earlier this year, the Canadiens also got superior goaltending from Rogatien Vachon, the 22-year-old rookie who had played only 19 games after being called up from the Houston Apollos to replace the injured Gump Worsley and the ineffective Charlie Hodge. Vachon learned the Montreal attitude toward the playoffs very quickly: "There is a little more tension, sure. But maybe that makes you play better." The Rangers' Francis, a former goalie himself, added, "Vachon has been winning and winning ever since he came up. Now maybe he thinks he'll never get beat. And that's the way a goalie should feel."
Vachon's confidence may have wavered slightly when the Rangers pulled away to their 4-1 lead in the opener. Blake later admitted that he had been waiting for a chance to put in Worsley before Provost's goal touched off the winning rally. Vachon knew that once he sat down he might never get back into the playoffs, but he coolly refused to panic. "There was nothing I could do about the shots that had gone in," he shrugged. "I just figured I'd better stop the rest and hope for the best."
The Rangers were depending heavily on their own goalie, Giacomin, the man most responsible for their good season. But Giacomin, who may have been worn out from the increasing pressure he had faced as the Ranger checking weakened late in the season, had a bad series. There was the nightmarish third period in the first game, and an equally shattering two-goal assault in the first three minutes of the third game. In between there were also some fine saves, but this was not meant to be Giacomin's series. It ended with an embarrassing blunder on the goal Ferguson scored in overtime to clinch the victory. Eddie blocked a hard shot by Claude Larose and thought the puck was cradled between his right arm and his chest. As he moved to his right to drop it clear of trouble, the puck slipped to the ice on the goal line. By the time he saw it, Giacomin was so far out of position that he could only watch as Ferguson took two swipes at the inviting target and finally drove it into the net.
Up front, the Rangers suffered key injuries to Goyette, the club leader in assists, and big Orland Kurtenbach, one of their best checkers. Even at full strength the New York centers would have been unable to skate with Béliveau, Richard and Ralph Backstrom. The Montreal centers controlled the play for most of the series and took part in all but one of the Canadiens' 14 goals. "The centers are the biggest factor in the improvement of their club," Francis said midway in the series. "That's probably true," said Blake. "Especially Richard. He's gotten over all his injuries and now he's really flying."
It became clear early in the series that the Rangers would try to stop Henri with hard body checks. "I don't let that bother me," Richard said. "The checks keep me in the game. I don't mind mixing it up with those big guys." In the last game he even got into a shoving match with the towering Kurtenbach, who is hockey's best fighter. "Well, I wasn't really looking to fight him," Henri smiled later. "But I looked good holding him back, anyway."
"Rugged-checking teams used to bother our fast skaters," said Blake. "But no more. Since we got some big guys ourselves—Ferguson and Terry Harper and Ted Harris—we can hold our own in any brawls." Francis was not fully convinced. "You saw what happened out there," he said. "Some of those guys like Gilles Tremblay and Bobby Rousseau didn't enjoy the hitting one bit. That's why I thought we could beat them. But when we had them hemmed in, they would always slip away." When the Ranger aggressors did manage to catch their foes, they won most of the fights in the series. But the Canadiens won the games, and came out of them without scars. Going into the finals, Toe Blake says his team is "at least as good as the one that won the Stanley Cup last year."