The Montreal Canadiens are to the NHL what the New York Yankees are to major league baseball—royalty in the sport. And if you have any doubt, all you have to do is ask fans of either team (spoken like a true Boston sports partisan). The 1993 Montreal Canadiens were the last edition of the franchise to win the Stanley Cup.
After the last installment of their great dynastic runs ended in 1979, the Canadiens had a brief restoration in 1986 and then made the Finals in 1989. They had won a playoff series each year from 1990-92. So it was a traditionally good team that assembled in 1993 and they were particularly good at the sport’s most important position.
Patrick Roy had been a postseason hero in 1986 as a 20-year-old goalie. Since then, Roy had continued putting together a career that would eventually mark him as one of the game’s all-time greats. In 1993, he was in the top 10 of the league in save percentage and keyed a defense that ranked seventh overall in goals allowed.
The lineup was consistently balanced throughout. Vincent Damphousse, Kirk Muller, Brian Bellows and Stephen Lebeau all scored between 30-40 goals apiece. Mike Keane and Denis Savard combined for over 100 assists between them. Montreal would end up ninth in the NHL in goals scored.
They were steady in the early going and into January, when they beat the Bruins and the Los Angeles Kings—the top rival in their division, and the eventual Western Conference champs. By the beginning of February, the Canadiens were sitting on a 32-18-5 record.
That set the stage for a sizzling February and the record reached 40-19-6. Montreal was the hunt with Boston and the Quebec Nordiques for first place in the old Adams Division. But some shaky play down the stretch, eleven losses in the final 19 games, left Montreal in third place.
But the record was still 48-30-6, the Canadiens were still one of seven teams in the league to clear the 100-point barrier and this is still the NHL—where the phrase “second season” is completely apt.
The playoffs were seeded strictly by division—the top four made it and played amongst each other to get to the conference finals. Montreal would open its playoff run against Quebec, easily the most competitive of the first-round matchups.
The Nordiques—today’s Colorado Avalanche—had offensive firepower. Mat Sundin and Joe Sakic, both future Hall of Famers were in their early twenties and combined for 95 goals. They keyed an offense that was third in the NHL. But even with Ron Hextall in net, the Nordiques were soft on defense where they ranked ranked 15th in a 24-team league.
When the Canadiens took a 2-0 lead in the third period of Game 1, it looked like they were getting the kind of game they wanted. But it was fast-paced, with 75 combined shots and Roy coughed up the lead. Montreal lost in overtime. The negative momentum carried over into Game 2 when the Canadiens dug an early 3-0 hole and lost 4-1.
It was Hextall, not Roy, who was dominating and when Quebec scored the first goal of Game 3 just 77 seconds into play, this series was looking none too promising. But Roy tightened the screws. Montreal played with the appropriate urgency and unloaded 50 shots on goal. Hextall continued to be great, but the Canadiens got a 2-1 win in overtime. Game 4 provided more tension, with a 2-2 tie in the third period. Montreal got the game-winning goal from Benoit Brunet and the series was tied.
The second period of Game 5 back in Quebec saw the offenses finally establish themselves. A flurry of scoring left the game tied 3-3. Roy was the one who settled down first. Another overtime affair resulted in a 5-4 win for the Canadiens.
Momentum was now squarely in Montreal’s favor and the second period of Game 6 again saw them break through against Hextall. In a 2-2 tie, Paul DiPetro scored twice in a flurry that chased the Nordique goalie. The Canadiens pulled away and won 6-2, clinching a series that had been as good as anticipated.
An upset took place on the other side of the bracket, when the fourth-place Buffalo Sabres swept Boston. But a closer look at the Sabres’ personnel was enough to give Montreal pause. Buffalo had a prolific scorer in 23-year-old Alexander Mogilny, a 2nd-team All-Star in Pat LaFontaine and a great passer in Dale Hawerchuk. A midseason trade had brought Buffalo a future Hall of Fame goalie in Grant Fuhr.
The Sabres had also gotten on a magic ride in close games, winning three overtime battles against the Bruins. The tables turned on them against Montreal. Keane had three assists in Game 1 and Damphousse broke a 3-3 tie with the game-winner early in the third period.
Every other game in this series would have the same final score, every one went to overtime and every one fell the Canadiens’ way. Damphousse scored twice more in the Game 2 win, and then again early in Game 3. Guy Carbonneau got a big short-handed goal in that third game to set up the OT session. On the verge of clinching the series, Roy gave up the tying goal with ten seconds left in Game 4. But it merely delayed the inevitable. A Muller goal clinched the sweep and sent Montreal to the conference finals.
Another bracket break awaited the Canadiens. The two-time defending Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins had been knocked out and it was the New York Islanders who advanced. Like Montreal, the Islanders were a recent dynasty, with four straight Stanley Cups from 1980-83. Unlike the Canadiens, the Isles had not looked like a threat during the 1993 season.
New York was good enough offensively, ranking sixth in the league and Pierre Turgeon lit the lamp 58 times. Steve Thomas, Derek King and Benoit Hogue were all 30-plus goal scorers. But the defense was mediocre and the final regular reason record had been barely over .500.
Montreal got a comfortable win at home in Game 1, limiting the Isles to 21 shots in a 4-1 victory. Game 2 was anything but comfortable—it went two overtimes. But LeBeau scored twice, including the game-winner in a 4-3 win.
In a defensive battle down in Long Island, the Canadiens trailed 1-0 in the third period before Damphousse tied it up with just over five minutes to play. Carbonneau scored in overtime and the Canadiens had their eleventh straight win of the postseason.
That streak ended in Game 4, when Roy finally showed some cracks in the third period of a 4-1 loss. But Montreal was ready to go back home in Game 5. Muller scored a minute into the game, jumpstarting a sprint to a 5-0 lead where five different players scored. The final was 5-2 and the Canadiens were going back to the Stanley Cup Finals.
There were three dynasties that marked NHL history from the mid-1970s and through the 1980s. Montreal was one of them. They had beaten another in the Islanders. Now they would get a crack at the third…sort of. Wayne Gretzky had led the Edmonton Oilers to four championships in the late 1980s before a shocking trade to Los Angeles shook up the team. Now, Gretzky had the Kings in the Finals to face off with the Canadiens.
Gretzky had help—very good help in the form of Luc Robatille, a 63-goal scorer and future Hall of Famer himself. Other holdovers from the Edmonton dynasty that had relocated south were Jari Kurri and Paul Coffey. After a pedestrian regular season, Los Angeles had gotten on a roll, won some long playoff series and brought plenty of championship savvy to Bell Centre for the series opener.
In a 1-1 tie, Montreal gave up a power play goal to Robatille. Gretzky scored twice and had three assists and the Canadiens fell 4-1. Roy had been outplayed by a mediocre goalie in LA’s Kelly Hrudey.
The pattern was continuing in Game 2, with Hrudey again playing well and Montreal trailing 2-1 late in the game. Eric Desjardins stepped up and turned the Finals around. He tied the game with 1:13 left and then scored less than a minute into overtime. The Canadiens had survived and the series was tied.
Montreal built off the momentum and peppered Hrudey for a 3-0 lead in Game 3 in Los Angeles. But Roy had a rough second period and gave all three goals back. Again, the game went to overtime. Again, the Canadiens didn’t wait long—John LeClair scored less than a minute into the extra session for the 4-3 win.
Roy was brilliant in Game 4, finishing with 40 saves and clinging to a 2-1 lead. But for the second time in the playoffs, he gave up an extremely late goal, allowing Marty McSorley to tie for the Kings with just five seconds left. But overtime wasn’t going to stress this Montreal time. They were 9-1 in OT games during this postseason and made it 10-1 tonight, again getting a LeClair goal to win it.
Bell Centre was hoping for the return of the Stanley Cup in Game 5 and it was a tight 1-1 affair into the second period. Then DiPietro scored twice. LeClair had a couple assists. The defense was dominant, limiting Los Angeles to 19 shots. After a postseason filled with overtime affairs, the championship was clinched with a relatively stress-free 4-1 win.
Roy finished the playoffs with a 92.9% save rate, very good for the regular season in this era and astoundingly good for the postseason. It made him an easy choice for the Conn Smythe Award. Damphousse and Muller had each scored double-digit goals in the playoffs, while Keane and Desjardins had 10-plus assists each.
It was another restoration of the Montreal Dynasty, but in retrospect, it’s proven a threshold championship in less positive ways. The Canadiens have not won the Stanley Cup since, nor made the Finals. They’ve only made the conference finals twice and it took until 2010 for the next trip even that far.
More broadly, no team from Canada has won the Stanley Cup since 1993. As this is written in the summer of 2019, Canada has seen its pro franchises win championships in baseball and basketball since this ‘93 Cup run, but never in the sport the nation rightly considers its own.