Every now and then, you get teams who go from bad to good in a very short time. The Montreal Canadiens of the 1940s are a prime example of that. The Canadiens started off the 1940s as a bad team desperately looking to improve. The Canadiens finished 6th out of 7 teams ahead of only the New York Americans and just one point below the Chicago Black Hawks. While Toe Blake was on the team, he had a less-than-spectacular season, finishing with only 32 points in 48 games. One bright spot was young gun John Quilty who led the team with 18 goals and 34 points, winning the Calder trophy. While the Canadiens weren’t particularly good on offense, it was their lack of solid defensive play that really set them back. With 147 goals against, they were the second worst in the NHL. With virtually no solid defensemen other than a very inexperienced and young Ken Reardon and very sub-par goaltending, they Canadiens struggled to keep pucks out of their net.
Unfortunately for the Canadiens, the 1941-42 season wasn’t much better. They finished with one more point and a 18-27-3 record to place 6th out of 7 teams, besting out only the Brooklyn Americans. The Canadiens had failed to fix any of the issues that plagued them the season prior and again had a brutal defense along with a brutal offense. Paul Bibeault had some of the worst numbers in the NHL and the team still lacked any reliable defenders. A few positives existed however; Toe Blake showed that he was back to form, scoring 17 goals and 45 points. Montreal had a 20-goal scorer again in Joe Benoit, but John Quilty had a bit of a sophomore slump, dropping 10 points down to 24 points on the season.
However, it wasn’t Quilty or Benoit who would lead the Canadiens to glory. Even though they might not have known it, the beginnings of a great team were starting to emerge. A young Buddy O’Connor was a bright spot for the Canadiens with 25 points in 36 games. Kenny Reardon led all Canadiens defensemen in points. A young Emile Bouchard began his career by playing in 44 games for Montreal whilst another young player named Elmer Lach made his NHL debut by playing a single game during the season.
The 1942-43 season was both the dawn of the Original Six era (as the Americans had folded) and the dawn of the 50-game season. While the Canadiens weren’t particularly good, they were finally showing signs of improvement in the 1942-43 season. The Canadiens still only had Bibeault holding the fort in net, but with the help of an improving Bouchard, progress began to be made. However, what changed the most was the offense of Montreal. Gone were the days without exciting star forwards. While none of the Canadiens players finished close to the top of the scoring charts, Toe Blake showed that he still had some good playing days ahead of him, putting up 59 points in 48 games, followed closely by his young new linemate, Elmer Lach who himself had 40 assists and 58 points. Benoit led the way in the goal-scoring department with 30 goals, becoming the first Canadien to breach that mark since Howie Morenz scored 40 in the 1929-30 season. The Canadiens finished 4th with a 19-19-12 record, breaking even in point percentage for the first time since the 1937-38 season. But that was nothing compared to what was to come.
Rarely had the NHL ever seen such a drastic improvement in such a short time. The Montreal Canadiens went from one of the worst teams in the NHL to the arguably the best team the league had ever seen in the span of a few years. The Canadiens finished first in the NHL with an astonishing 38-5-7 record, good for a .830 point percentage. They had both the best offense and best defense in the NHL. Amazingly, they only just barely had a player in the top 5 in scoring, testifying to their amazing depth. Lach led the way in points with 72 points in 48 games, though Blake was just behind with 59 points in just 41 games. A new young star named Maurice Richard led the way in goals with 32 goals, forming a great line between the three star forwards. Even the 2nd line was strong with Buddy O’Connor leading the way with 42 assists and 54 points in 44 games, helping his linemate Ray Getliffe and Gerald Heffernan both score 28 goals. While the Canadiens didn’t have any offensive defensemen, Emille Bouchard admirably held the back end backed by perhaps one of the biggest difference makers on the team, Bill Durnan. The Canadiens had acquired a new goaltender, the ambidextrous Bill Durnan, who took over the NHL and won the Vezina trophy as the league’s best goaltender. The Canadiens stormed their way all the way to the Stanley Cup, losing only 1 games out of their 9 total games along the way. The 1944 Cup was the first Cup Montreal had won since the days of Howie Morenz in 1931, marking the end of dark days in Montreal.
Remarkably, the 1944-45 season is actually more famous than the 1943-44 season. While the Canadiens were certainly better in the 1943-44 season, the 1944-45 season was still close behind and was incredible in it’s own right. However, the main feature of the season was the legend himself, Maurice “Rocket” Richard. Unlike the season prior, the Canadiens had no trouble getting players into the top end of the scoring race; in fact, they had three. Blake played the middle role of both scorer and playmaker and finished with 29 goals, 38 assists, and 67 points, good for third in the NHL. Just ahead of him was the great Maurice Richard with a stunning 50 goals in 50 games. No one had ever beaten Joe Malone‘s 44 goals since the 1917-18 season, though Cooney Weiland came close in the 1929-30 seaosn with 43 goals.
Richard finished second in the NHL with 73 points, but much of his success was due to his centreman, Elmer Lach, who dominated the league with 80 points, the 2nd highest total in NHL history up to that point. Lach quietly had the first 50-assist season in NHL history and was rewarded with the Hart Trophy at the end of the season. Perhaps most amazingly, and also most underrated, was the Bill Durnan’s work in net. The Canadiens were far and away the best defensive team in the NHL, and that was largely due to both Emille Bouchard, who had an amazing 34-point season while staying strong on defense, and Bill Durnan, who finished with a sparkling 2.42 GAA. To put that number into context, the next best regulars were Harry Lumley and Frank McCool, who both had a 3.22 GAA; it was no contest. Durnan easily took home the Vezina, showing that he was a league above the other goaltenders. Perhaps the only reason that this season isn’t considered as good as the 1943-44 season was the disappointing playoffs run. The Canadiens were upset in the first round by the Toronto Maple Leafs in 6 games, ending their amazing season in a disappointing way.
From one of the worst to one of the best, the early 40s were just the beginning for the Canadiens, as they would go on to be one of the best franchises for decades to come.