Well, it took the National Hockey League seven months and 228 games to prove—surprise, surprise—that the Montreal Canadiens are still the very best team of any size, or any shape, in any country, anywhere.
Their total dominance of the Toronto Maple Leafs in the Stanley Cup final playoffs, which ended rather briskly last Saturday, four games to one, pointed out that Montreal has enough of everything to continue skating off with cups indefinitely. Actually, the unprecedented fourth straight cup was never very far from their grasp. They beat Toronto in the first two games (5-3 and 3-1), lost the third game in overtime 3-2, then brushed the Leafs aside in the last two games 3-2 and 5-3.
When the finals began, many folks thought that Toronto might continue to sail along on the late-season carpet of desire which had propelled them from last place, where they were just seventeen days before the regular season ended, into the playoffs and then on into the finals. Toronto's Coach Punch Imlach started making statements that sounded as though they had originated in the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer School of Coaching. "A good fighting club," said Punch with feeling, "will beat a club that has superstars on it every time." And, "We're going to win the whole thing.... I have no doubt about it.... We have more good scorers than Montreal."
What Imlach seemed to be trying to do was convince his own players that they were very, very good when, in fact, they were not really very good at all. Phil Watson made the best remark about Imlach. After reading the inspirational messages that the Toronto coach was delivering to his players, Watson, a rather outspoken elf himself, said, "Well, he's certainly taking the sails out of my wind."
The rise of the Leafs to the finals of cup play, while it was amazing to behold, serves as a testimony to the contrasting caliber of the Canadiens and the league in general. On New Year's Eve, as the season reached its middle point, Toronto was 19 points out of first place and 6 points out of fourth. But the Detroit Red Wings and the New York Rangers, who had been high in the standings, took two of the biggest nose dives in the history of shinny on skates and Toronto, poor Toronto, found itself rising into the Stanley Cup playoffs.
WAY TOO MUCH
They got past Boston in the semifinals, 4 games to 3, but then they ran into Montreal, rich Montreal. The Maple Leafs found that their skaters could not project sustained drives on the Montreal goal. And their defense could not contain Montreal's arsenal of shooters. In short, Montreal was too good, too fast, too deep.
The Montreal team is in reality a smoothly humming machine which compares almost exactly to the New York Yankees of baseball or the Calumet Farm of racing. Let one bearing, one infielder, one horse falter, and another bounds up to take its place. Montreal was riddled by injuries this year. Not only did they lose the greatest goal getter of all time, Maurice Richard, for almost half a season, but they lost the second highest scorer in the league, Jean Beliveau, for the playoffs. But there was always somebody like Marcel Bonin, Doug Harvey or Ralph Backstrom waiting to skate in and catch the Montreal banner before it could ever touch the ground.
It will be only five months before the National Hockey League again goes into fall training and, unless someone starts building and buying in large quantities, next season will only prove all over again what everyone is getting a little tired of knowing.