There was no doubt — the Toronto Maple Leafs were a dynasty. The Stanley Cup victories of 1942 and 1945 were almost incidental, as the team changed so much after the war, but having won the Lord Stanley's chalice in 1947, 1948 and 1949 certainly qualified this club as a dynasty. A championship eluded them in 1950, but the boys in blue and white were ready to wrestle hockey's top honour back in the spring of 1951.
Max Bentley had led the Leafs in scoring through the regular season, finishing third overall in the NHL with 62 points. And the dipsy-doodling centre was expected to lead his team to glory in the post-season.
|Four centres from Toronto Maple Leafs 1950-51 Stanley Cup winning team - Cal Gardner, Ted Kennedy, Max Bentley and John McCormack. (Imperial Oil-Turofsky/HHOF)
Second-place Toronto was paired with the fourth-place Boston Bruins in the semi-final. It took just five games for the Leafs to eliminate Boston. Max, who played superbly, posted two goals during the series, including the game-winner in Game Four.
With Boston now out of the way, the Maple Leafs faced the Montreal Canadiens, who had won their semi-final series over the defending Stanley Cup champion Detroit Red Wings.
The first two games were played in Maple Leaf Gardens. Game One took overtime to decide, but Toronto took the series lead with a 3-2 win. Game Two was also tied at two at the end of regulation, but this time, it was Montreal who tallied to win the game and even the series.
Shifting to the Forum in Montreal for the next two games, the rivals were in a heated battle. Game Three was knotted at 1-1 at the end of sixty minutes, but Toronto pulled out an overtime victory to earn a lead of two games to one in the final. Two nights later, Toronto and Montreal again earned a tie as the final buzzer sounded. Toronto again pulled out a breath-taking win, putting themselves in the catbird seat with a lead of three games to one in the series, with Game Five scheduled in the friendly confines of their home rink.
Maurice Richard opened the scoring in the second period but Tod Sloan responded three minutes later with an equalizer for the Leafs. In the third, Paul Meger put Montreal ahead and it looked as though the Canadiens had the win.
With 32 seconds remaining in regulation time, Toronto coach Joe Primeau pulled netminder Al Rollins for the extra attacker. The strategy paid dividends as Sloan scored his second goal of the game to tie the contest, sending the fifth consecutive game into overtime.
|The 1951 Stanley Cup Champion Toronto Maple Leafs. (Imperial Oil-Turofsky/HHOF)
Tied at two apiece, Toronto and Montreal went to their respective dressing rooms to prepare for sudden death.
Early in the extra frame, Howie Meeker got the puck behind the Montreal goal and fed it out front. It appeared to deflect off Butch Bouchard and bounced out to the faceoff circle to the right of Montreal netminder Gerry McNeil. There, Bill Barilko gambled and drove in from the blueline to slash at the loose puck. Horizontal as he backhanded the puck, its trajectory was arrow-straight over the shoulder of the prone goalie, hitting the net in the back of the cage at 2:53.
The Leafs mobbed the young defenceman, who was known more for his bodychecking than for his scoring prowess. He was lifted to the shoulders of his teammates as a tumultuous roar continued to descend from every nook of the venerable old Gardens.
Max couldn't have been more proud had he scored. The unlikely pair had become great friends, enjoying the horses together. Bentley had also intended to buy into the Barilko brothers' appliance store, although that transaction never took place. In the dressing room after the game, Bill Barilko gave Bentley the sweater he wore during that historic contest of April 21, 1951. That sweater, by the way, took a circuitous route, but is now housed in the Hockey Hall of Fame.
The two pals, Barilko, who scored 3 goals in the playoffs, including the dramatic final tally, and Bentley, who had 2 goals and 11 assists for 13 points in the 1950-51 playoffs, which gave him a tie in post-season points with Maurice Richard, said their goodbyes and went there own ways that summer. Max returned to the family farm in Delisle, Saskatchewan and Bill returned home to his family in Timmins, Ontario. Little did either know that it was the last they would see of each other. Late that summer, Barilko disappeared flying home from a fishing trip to northern Quebec. Lost without a trace, it was eleven years before the tragic young hero's remains were discovered in the dense bush near Cochrane, Ontario.
While Max Bentley played a handful more seasons in the National Hockey League, no victory was more meaningful or poignant to the sensational centre than the Stanley Cup win of 1951.
Kevin Shea is the Editor of Publications and Online Features at the Hockey Hall of Fame.