Canadiens’ 1971 Stanley Cup Their Most Unlikely Title

“Winning was a religion in Montreal.”

When it comes to the Stanley Cup, no team has earned inscriptions on the legendary silver trophy more often than the Montreal Canadiens. The Canadiens are listed as winners of Lord Stanley’s mug a record 24 times. 

“In Montreal, the only thing we thought about was winning,” former Canadiens defenseman Jacques Laperriere told “The only word we knew was winning. Winning was a religion in Montreal. We never thought about losing.”

It can be debated for hours as to which of those teams was the greatest in franchise history, but the list of unlikeliest Stanley Cup triumphs by the Habs is a much shorter one to study. A case can be made for the rookie-laden 1985-86 club, or the overtime heroes of 1992-93, Montreal’s most recent Cup victory.

However, when the discussion ends, it always seems to conclude with the 1970-71 Canadiens on top of the list of surprise Cup triumphs earned by Montreal’s most famous sports franchise. It’s a certainty in the spring of 1971 that sports betting Canada wasn’t backing a Montreal Cup run. 

Looking back 50 years later, there seemed to be little cause to support the Canadiens as realistic Cup contenders. Montreal had missed the playoffs in the 1969-70 season. During the 1970-71 campaign, they finished third in the East Division. Coach Claude Ruel was fired in midseason, replaced by Al MacNeil. 

Legendary captain Jean Beliveau and notorious tough guy John Ferguson were nearing the end of their careers, while the team was opting to rely on rookie netminder Ken Dryden, with just six games of NHL experience on his resume, as their go-to goalie for the postseason. This recipe appeared to have disaster written all over it.

“1971 Stanley Cup” by Dick Raphael/Getty is licensed under CC BY 3.0 

Bashing The Bruins

To make matters worse, Montreal’s first-round opponent would be the NHL’s No. 1 regular-season team, the Boston Bruins. All the Bruins had done that season was establish or tie 37 NHL records. Center Phil Esposito posted new single-season marks for goals (76) and points (152), while Bobby Orr set new standards for assists (102) and for points by a defenseman (139). The Bruins were also defending Stanley Cup champions.

Boston won the series opener 3-1 and carried a 5-2 lead in the third period of Game 2. Then something magical happened. The Canadiens staged a miraculous rally to win 7-5.

At home, Montreal won Game 3 to go up 2-1. Then Boston won Games 4 and 5. Blasting the Bruins 8-3 in Game 6, Montreal staved off elimination. In Game 7 at Boston Garden, first-period goals by Frank Mahovlich and Rejean Houle gave the Habs a lead they would never relinquish en route to a 4-2 victory. 

The victory marked the first time since the spring of 1951 that Montreal had won a playoff series as the betting underdog.

Outshining The North Stars

Perhaps there was a bit of a letdown after stunning the mighty Bruins, but the expansion Minnesota North Stars proved to be much more of a handful for Montreal in the semifinals than anyone had anticipated.

Minnesota took a 6-3 decision in Game 2 at the Montreal Forum, the first time an expansion club had won a playoff game from an established NHL franchise. The series stood 2-2 through four games.

In Game 5, the Habs broke open a 1-0 game with five third-period goals for a 6-1 win. They wrapped up the set via a 3-2 verdict at the Met Center.

 “1954 Stanley Cup Final” by NHL is licensed under CC BY 3.0 

Snapping the Home-Ice Hoodoo

For six games of the Stanley Cup final, the home-ice advantage proved insurmountable. The Chicago Blackhawks won Games 1, 2 and 5 at Chicago Stadium. Montreal responded with victories in Games 3, 4 and 6 at the Forum. It was reminiscent of the 1954-55 final between the Canadiens and Detroit when the home team won all seven games, Detroit taking the Cup with a 3-1 decision in Game 7 at Olympia Stadium.

When goals by Dennis Hull and Danny O’Shea spotted the Blackhawks a 2-0 edge in Game 7, it appeared that history would repeat itself. However, the Canadiens would flip the script.

Jacques Lemaire beat Chicago goalie Tony Esposito with a long slap shot from the neutral zone and the tide turned on that weak tally. Henri Richard tied it and netted the only goal of the third period to give Montreal a 3-2 victory and the Stanley Cup.

Dryden won the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP. Beliveau took a victory lap with the Cup and announced his retirement. Acquired from Detroit in a midseason trade, Frank Mahovlich led all playoff scorers with 27 points. That mark still stands as a Canadiens record for a single postseason.