"The biggest thing I remember was that Jacques Lemaire's goal from the red line," said Jacques Laperriere, then a Montreal defenseman and later an assistant coach for four NHL teams over a 25-year period. "After that, the momentum switched to our side."
The fact that the Canadiens were even in the Final was remarkable. They had finished third in the Eastern Conference, which under the playoff setup at the time meant a first-round showdown with the defending champion Boston Bruins, who had set NHL scoring records in 1970-71 thanks to the play of Phil Esposito and Bobby Orr. In addition, the Canadiens had taken the goaltending job away from Rogie Vachon and entrusted it to a kid from Cornell named Ken Dryden, who had only a handful of NHL games under his belt when the postseason began.
But Dryden staved off the Bruins' record-setting offense and the Canadiens upset Boston in seven games, then beat Minnesota in six to earn a showdown with Chicago, the Western champion. The teams split the first four games before Chicago moved within a game of the Cup by capturing Game 5. But back at the Forum, the Canadiens rallied for a 4-3 victory to push the Final to a seventh game for the first time since 1965.
The prospect of having to win the Cup at Chicago Stadium, perhaps the most hostile arena in the NHL at the time, didn't faze Laperriere or his teammates.
"When you reach that point, there's only one thing that matters," he said. "You've got to go out and do the job — win. You don't think about being nervous. You just focus on what you have to do."
For most of the first two periods, the only thing the Canadiens were able to focus on was the "0" under their name on the scoreboard. Then Lemaire, owner of one of the hardest slap shots in the NHL, came out of his own zone and ripped a shot from center ice.
"It must have dropped six inches," Chicago center Stan Mikita remembered nearly 30 years later. "[Goaltender] Tony [Esposito] was notorious for not being able to see the puck from long distances. I was in the [penalty] box on that end when he took the shot — I might have had a better view than Tony."
The goal stunned the Blackhawks and gave the Canadiens new life. Henri Richard scored before the period ended to tie the score, then connected again 2:34 into the final period to put Montreal ahead. Dryden held off the Blackhawks the rest of the way to give the Canadiens their third Cup in four years.
Even Laperriere, whose resume includes eight Stanley Cups, admits that the 1971 Cup was special.
"When you win that first Cup, you say, 'I'll remember this one for the rest of my life,'" he says. "I've been through eight, and this seems like the best"
There's nothing in hockey that can match the win-or-go-home stakes of Game 7 in a Stanley Cup final. But Laperriere says that for the Canadiens, whose fans were used to winning championships, losing was not an option.
"In Montreal, the only thing we thought about was winning," he said. "The only thing we talked about was winning. The only word we knew was winning. Winning was a religion in Montreal. We never thought about losing."