Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Greatest Hockey Team Ever: Those damn Habs

It’s fitting that the only same team match-up in the Sweet 16 of our What If Sports generated Greatest Hockey Team Ever tournament features an all-Habs match-up. The Habs, after all, are God's team. Just ask their fans.

But, what a match-up it is. The ’68 champions were a workmanlike team that didn’t get the praise of other Montreal teams of the era, but one can’t overlook that the core of that team won four cups in a six year period that was at the height of the big bad Bruins era. The first champions in the 12-team NHL era, the ’68 Habs showed that Montreal would adjust to hockey’s new reality and continue to be a dominate franchise.

Ten years earlier, the ’58 Habs got plenty of praise. Smack-dab in the middle of Montreal’s record-breaking five straight cups, this Montreal side was so good the NHL changed its rules to try and keep them at bay (ever wonder why a penalized player is let back on the ice after a team scores a power-play goal? The late-'50s Habs are the answer)

How they got there

The ’68 team got by the ’69 Blues in round one, before upsetting Bobby Orr and the 1970 Bruins in the second. To qualify for the Sweet 16, the ’68 team got by a later version of themselves—Ken Dryden’s miracle ’73 side.

The powerhouse ’58 team beat a younger version of themselves (’56) in round-one and, of course, got rid of a Toronto side (’62) in the second. Another Montreal team, the 1966 champions, provided the final opposition prior to this Sweet 16 match-up.

The Series

Game 1 The unheralded ’68 side put 23 second period shots on net on the way to a surprising 4-1 win a 1-0 series lead. Jean Beliveau was solid throughout, and Gump Worsley outplayed fellow legend Jacques Plante in the net.
Game 2 Bobby Rousseau’s second period goal proved to be the winner for the ’68 Habs, but it continued to be the Gump show. Goaltender Worsley made 53 saves in his team’s 2-1 lead.
Game 3 They may be less famed than their dynasty counterparts, but the ’68 Habs are proving to be the better team. Game 3 wasn’t close, as the ’68 side fired 48 shots on net and controlled play from start to finish in a 4-1 win to give them a decisive 3-0 series lead. Dick Duff was a monster throughout.
Game 4 A frustrated ’58 team took three straight penalties in overtime before eventually giving up the series winner to Jean Beliveau. Fans of the ‘50s dynasty Habs must now put their hopes on the 1959 team, which takes on the ’71 Hawks later in the Sweet 16.

Next up, the oldest team I the Sweet 16, the 1919-20 Sens, take on the war era ’44 Habs.

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