David Winch takes another look at the famed ’71 Bruins-Habs series – The Big M, Bruins-killer

Posted: May 7, 2014 in Uncategorized
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David Winch

Here’s a post from a special guest Top Shelf blogger, with my old pal David Winch providing a different take on that classic 1971 Habs upset of the Bruins.

By David Winch

The Bruins looked unbeatable. They finished the season with the best record in the NHL, after a run to the Cup the previous year. Boston was deep and loaded with talent, confident to the point of hubris. They clearly looked on their playoff series with the Montreal Canadiens as just a warm-up en route to another Cup final.

As every Habs fan knows, that 1971 postseason did not end quite as the Bruins expected. Popular memories and barstool narratives have reduced the ‘71 playoffs to one name: Dryden. And in fact rookie goaltender Ken Dryden starred in a playoffs for the ages, upending three consecutive opponents to bring the Cup back to Montreal.

But he did not do it alone. If Dryden was reason No. 1 for the Canadiens’ surprise Cup that spring, reason 1A was a player now largely overlooked – Frank Mahovlich. No less an authority than Gazette legend Red Fisher wrote that the Big M’s role was “colossal”.

“While rookie Ken Dryden was getting it done defensively, Mahovlich was unstoppable on offence. It’s unlikely the Canadiens would have won the Cup without him” in 1971, recalled Fisher years later (Gazette, Oct. 11, 2007).

The January 13, 1971 trade with the Red Wings that brought Mahovlich to Montreal in exchange for Mickey Redmond, Guy Charron and Bill Collins was ranked as the Habs “best mid-season pick-up” ever by blogger Robert Lefebvre at the Eyes on the Prize site.

Red Fisher added that it was “a trade [GM Sam] Pollock felt he had to make in a season during which the reigning Stanley Cup champion Boston Bruins had dominated during the first half. Furthermore, the Bruins continued to remain the runaway class of the NHL for the second half. Pollock, however, was looking beyond the season: the playoffs.”

”Mahovlich paid colossal returns with an NHL-leading 14 goals and 13 assists in 20 postseason games. Result: the Canadiens upset the heavily favoured Bruins in the first round, Minnesota in six games in the second round and won the Stanley Cup in seven games against Chicago.”

But fame is fleeting. I had a taste of the Big M’s fading renown this month when I decided to finally get a Habs sweater – No. 27, of course. I had grown up with the Big M in Toronto, and was crushed when the Leafs traded Mahovlich away in 1968. That eventually led me to being a Montreal fan.

I said jokingly to the Bell Centre boutique employee that the name on the back of my new sweater should be “the real 27”. After I ruled out Galchenyuk and then Kovalev, the Gen X staffer drew a blank. “Mahovlich”, I finally offered, a bit sheepishly. Trying to explain his role back in 1971 as a star mid-season addition, I floundered; finally, I blurted out that Big M was sort of “a super Vanek”.

Mahovlich arrived in Montreal with a spectacular resume, including winning rookie of the year honours in 1958 over Bobby Hull and leading all NHL playoff scorers for three straight Maple Leaf Cup winners in the early 1960s. He was one of the 4-5 top offensive forces in the 1960s NHL, along with Bobby Hull and Stan Mikita, Gordie Howe and Jean Beliveau. Before the Golden Jet first scored 50 goals, Mahovlich was judged most likely to do it next, following a 48-goal outburst in 1961.

The Big M took the Montreal Forum by storm. As seminal U.S. hockey writer Mark Mulvoy wrote in Sports Illustrated about a 1971 home game against Chicago, “for the purists at the Forum, the supreme confrontation was that of [Bobby] Hull and Montreal’s Frank Mahovlich — the Golden Jet and the Big M. They are the highest-scoring left wings in history, and when they played against each other 14 times a season the games looked like shoot-outs staged by C. B. DeMille.”

“Hull would charge up the ice, shedding defenders effortlessly and then fire his slap shot from 30 feet at a petrified goal-tender. The next minute Mahovlich would take the puck down the ice, skating majestically in long strides, traveling faster than he looked, and blast away at another petrified goalie from 30 feet.”

Mahovlich, then 33, thrived emotionally on the hockey atmosphere in Montreal. In Toronto, he had been battered by the Don Cherry-like, old-school rants of Leafs coach Punch Imlach. “Even when I scored 48 goals for the Leafs,” said Mahovlich, “they were not happy.” That all changed in the wide-open Canadiens style: “For the first time in his career Frank does not have big pressure on him,” said Beliveau. “He always used to be a tense man. Now look at him; he is so relaxed.” He filled the Habs’ offensive gap between the 1971 retirement of Beliveau and the emergence of Guy Lafleur.

For today’s 20-something and younger fans, the only remotely comparable playoff performance to the ’71 Canadiens would be 2010, when goalie Jarsolav Halak unexpectedly carried the Canadiens to a third playoff round, while left-winger Mike Cammalleri took off offensively. Over the 2010 playoffs, Cammalleri scored 13 goals with 6 assists for 19 points in 19 games. By comparison, Frank Mahovlich over 20 games in 1971 scored a then-NHL playoff record 27 points.

This month the 2014 Canadiens face a Bruins squad that may again be, as Bobby Orr noted ruefully about his 1971 teammates, “a little bit too full of ourselves”. With a confident young Habs goalie as anchor, can some combination of offensive overachievers — Pacioretty and Vanek, or perhaps Briere, Eller and Bourque — emulate the Big M, and again surprise the Bruins?

You can almost hear the Boston fans saying “nothing like that can happen again”. But the lessons of 1971 remain there for all to see.

David Winch is a writer and editor based in N.D.G.


  1. David Winch says:

    A correction from the author: an alert reader noted that , of course Boom Boom, had scored 50 goals first after the Rocket, so neither Hull or Big M would have been the first post-Richard to reach that milestone. DW

  2. Jerry Chase says:

    This is so true and worthy of wide dissemination. How can any neutral observer NOT admire both Frank Mahovlich and Sammy Pollock? Pollock was a real genius.

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