Dead. Dead on the frozen water. Dead as smelt. Lifeless, inanimate, without a snowball's chance in hell. That's where the Stanley Cup aspirations of the Montreal Canadiens stood.
They had already dropped the opening game of the finals to the Los Angeles Kings, and now they trailed 2-1 in Game 2 with but 1:45 remaining. Only two NHL teams had ever lost the first two games at home and gone on to win the Stanley Cup, and that hadn't been done since 1966. What to do? wondered Montreal coach Jacques Demers, scanning his bench for a legend waiting to be discovered. No Richards—Maurice or Henri. No Howie Morenz. No Jean Béliveau. No Boom-Boom Geoffrion or Guy Lafleur.
Demers looked out on the ice for inspiration. He saw King goalie Kelly Hrudey, who to that point in the series had allowed only two goals in 118 minutes. We're dead, he thought. He saw L.A. defenseman Marty McSorley, and...bingo!
Desperate times call for desperate measures. Demers tapped his captain, Guy Carbonneau, on the shoulder and told him to ask referee Kerry Fraser to measure the curve on the blade of McSorley's stick. Since early in Game 1 the Canadiens had suspected it was illegal. But Demers sat on those suspicions until he felt he had nowhere else to turn. Had he been wrong, the Canadiens would have been penalized for delay of game. But in what was, after four games, the defining moment in this strange Stanley Cup final series, Fraser found McSorley's blade was curved more than the legal half inch—a quarter inch more, the NHL's chief of officials, Bryan Lewis, later estimated. McSorley received a two-minute penalty.
Demers turned it into a six-on-four advantage by pulling Patrick Roy out of the Canadien net, a daring move made necessary by the grim fact that the Montreal power play was riding an 0-for-32 streak extending back to the conference finals against the New York Islanders and was 0 for 11 against the Kings. The strategy worked to a T. Make that, to an OT. Thirty-two seconds after Roy was pulled, defenseman Eric Desjardins scored his second goal of the night to tie the game at 2—all. Never mind the replays that clearly showed Canadien forward John LeClair in the crease. Fraser, who had called a raft of ticky-tacky penalties throughout the game, robbing it of any flow, allowed Desjardins's goal to stand.
The score sent the Forum crowd howling with ghostlike glee—whooooo! whooooo!—as white-sheeted specters flitted across the electronic message board. The storied Forum ghosts had struck again, just as they had in 1979, when the Don Cherry-coached Boston Bruins were given their infamous too-many-men-on-the-ice penalty. This was just as unimaginable. An illegal stick? In the Stanley Cup finals? NHL coaches routinely warn their players in the last five minutes of a game to check their equipment. Players are told if there's any doubt at all to switch to a stick they know is legal. No such warning was given on the Kings' bench, and McSorley, caught up in the excitement of the moment, went brain dead. The Forum spirits had struck again, snatching victory for the bleu, blanc et rouge from what seemed to be certain defeat. It took just 51 seconds of overtime for Desjardins to pump another shot past Hrudey, making him the first defenseman ever to score a hat trick in the Stanley Cup finals and knotting the series at one game apiece.
Afterward King coach Barry Melrose was something less than red-faced, attempting to shift the blame for McSorley's gaffe to Demers, who coached Melrose when he played for the WHA's Cincinnati Stingers. "Barry Melrose wouldn't have made that call," Melrose claimed, smugly sanctimonious in defeat. "I don't believe in winning like that."
Right, Barry. And you don't believe in moussing that 'do of yours, either.
"It's part of the game," said Los Angeles's Wayne Gretzky, more reasonably. He cupped his hand into the shape of a C. "When a curve of a stick is like this, it's obvious. We've given them life. Now we're going back home to take it away."
The Kings were hoping that a cross-continental change of Forum, from Montreal's temple of hockey to L.A.'s house of Magic, would take some of the snap out of the Canadiens' stride. Montreal hadn't had to travel out of the eastern time zone since March 6—nearly three months. The Canadiens had logged only 1,928 frequent-flier miles since the beginning of the playoffs, while dispatching the Quebec Nordiques, the Buffalo Sabres and the Islanders; meanwhile, the Kings of the road had flown nearly the equivalent of once around the world—20,393 miles—while beating the Calgary Flames, the Vancouver Canucks and the Toronto Maple Leafs.