The 1986 Montreal Canadiens entered the season having failed to win a Stanley Cup the previous six years. That’s nothing for any other franchise but for the NHL’s proudest team, one who had won four straight Cups as recently as 1976-79, it was an interminable wait. 1986 saw a surprise return to the top led by a 20-year-goaltender named Patrick Roy.
Montreal had been through four coaches since the great Scotty Bowman left following the 1979 championship. Jean Perron became the fifth when he led the 1986 team. Most of the great players from that dynasty era were gone, but one big exception was 34-year-old defenseman Larry Robinson, who helped lead a defense that ranked fourth in the league in goals allowed.
Mats Naslund was a second-team All-Star, scoring 43 goals and handing out 67 assists. Other 30-goal scorers were Bobby Smith and Kjell Dahlin. The offense ranked sixth in the league in goals scored.
But the ultimate story of the season was Roy, and it’s appropriate that he was microcosm for the team. He was pretty good in the regular season, an 87.5% save rate that was much better by the context of 1986 than it would be today. And in the playoffs he lifted his game to a new level.
Montreal was consistent in the regular season, for better and for worse. They were .500 at Thanksgiving and nudged up to 19-12-4 by the New Year. They had a five-game win streak in January that was wiped out by a six-game losing streak in February. The Canadiens ended the regular season at 40-33-7.
It was good for second in the Adams Division—basically the Northeast, with Boston and division champ Quebec included. The record was fifth-best in the Wales Conference (the East) and seventh overall. There was no reason to expect something special from this Canadien team in the playoffs—the bracket seemed set up to produce an Edmonton-Philadelphia rematch in the Stanley Cup Finals.
Montreal met their longtime rival in Boston in the first round. The Bruins were led by the great defenseman Ray Borque and had 30-goal scorers in Keith Crowder and Charlie Simmer. They had the sixth-best defense in the NHL, but they didn’t have anyone that would match Roy in goal.
The young goalie got his postseason underway with a sweep of what was then a best-of-five series in the first round. Boston managed just six goals and Montreal was able to grind out wins of 3-1, 3-2 and 4-3. They got good news elsewhere—in the other Adams Division semifinal, Quebec had been upset by the Hartford Whalers. The Canadiens would have home ice for another round.
Hartford might have been last of the four Adams Division playoff teams, but they were pretty good in a balanced division that saw all five teams (Buffalo was the one to not make the playoffs) end up between 80-92 points. The Whalers had the fifth-best offense in the NHL, led by 45-goal scorer Sylvanian Turgeon and they got to Roy in Game 1, taking a 4-1 win.
Roy immediately got his game turned around, and Montreal won Game 2 by a 3-1 count and then reclaimed home ice in Game 3 with a 4-1 win. Roy continued to be great in Game 4, but the Canadiens lost a 2-1 overtime game that tied the series. The offense did its job in Game 5 with a 5-3 victory. Roy was back in form for Game 6, but got no support in a 1-0 loss. With the season on the line, Game 7 went to overtime and Montreal pulled out a 2-1 win.
It was a hair-raising survival, but more bracket breaks were coming Montreal’s way. The New York Rangers had upset Philadelphia and the conference finals would be Canadiens-Rangers. And for as well as Roy was now playing, the best goalie in hockey in 1986 was 22-year-old Vezina Trophy winner John Vanbiesbrouck. The Wales Conference would be decided by two rising stars in net.
What New York did not have was the ability to generate any offense, ranking 20th in the league in goals scorer. It enabled Roy to win a 2-1 due in the opener, and Montreal’s own attack was able to put pressure on Vanbiesbrouck in wins of 6-2 and 4-3 in overtime to put the Canadiens on the brink. The Ranger goalie went down fighting, producing a 2-0 shutout win, but Roy got the best of him in Game 5 with a 2-1 win. Montreal was returning to the Stanley Cup Finals for the first time since the dynasty ended in 1979.
And it was time for one more break in the bracket. Wayne Gretzky’s Edmonton Oilers had been to three straight Finals, won two straight Cups and were the best team in hockey in 1986. The Calgary Flames ousted Gretzky in the division finals and then survived a seven-game battle with the St. Louis Blues. It would be an all-Canada battle in the Stanley Cup Finals, the first since 1967.
Calgary’s 89 points in the regular season were slightly ahead of Montreal’s 87, so even this bracket break didn’t bring home ice advantage. The Flames had a deep and balanced offense that ranked second in scoring without one particular dominant player. And they had their own young goalie with a bright future ahead of him in 22-year-old Mike Vernon.
That deep offense hit Roy right away and Montreal lost the opener 5-2. The Canadiens fought Game 2 to a 2-2 tie through regulation and overtime began. It lasted all of nine seconds as Brian Skrudland scored immediately off the faceoff and Montreal had tied the series.
Montreal got to Vernon for five goals in Game 3, taking a 5-3 win and then Roy put his teammates on his back in a 1-0 Game 4 win that put the Canadiens on the verge of a title. They went to Calgary and finished the job, winning 4-3.
Roy’s numbers in the postseason were nothing short of spectacular. His save rate was 92.3% and he allowed just 1.92 goals per game. He was an easy choice for the Conn Smythe Award as MVP of the entire postseason.
The Montreal Canadiens were back on top of the hockey world and had briefly interrupted the Gretzky Dynasty in Edmonton. And Patrick Roy was just getting started on a career that would take him to the Hall of Fame.