The result for Canada was a sensational turnaround, from shocking defeat to remarkable victory. It came thanks to Peter Mahovlich, who scored one of the finest and most important goals the game of hockey has ever witnessed, a short-handed gem early in the third period to more or less seal the victory.
The first period was dominated by the coaches. Rules made clear the home team gets last change for putting players on the ice, but the referees didn’t seem to know which was designated home team and were unable to administer the rule properly. The result was often two or three line changes at one whistle, as coaches jockeyed to both match lines and avoid matchups simultaneously.
Tony Esposito was excellent when he had to be, and brother Phil opened the scoring early in the second on a delayed penalty. Canada dominated the period, using the body to break up the Soviet rushes and circling passing plays that marked their style. Sinden used Bobby Clarke for most key faceoffs, but it was still a 1-0 game after 40 minutes. The game changed irrevocably in the first half of the final period. Brad Park made a sensational pass to Yvan Cournoyer, streaking down the right wing, and Cournoyer blazed past defenceman Alexander Ragulin and rifled a shot between Tretiak’s pads for a 2-0 lead.
Alexander Yakushev made things close again, but then Mahovlich went to work. On the penalty kill, Phil Esposito backhanded the puck off the boards out to centre ice. The “Little M” got control and went one-on-one with defenceman Yevgeni Paladiev. Mahovlich froze the defenceman when he wound up to shoot, but he kept the puck and moved in alone on goal. Tretiak slid to the ice in the direction Mahovlich was skating, but the Canadian stopped, and knocked the puck in the open, near side. Brother Frank added the final goal two minutes later, and Canada left Maple Leaf Gardens with greater confidence, knowing they could beat the Russians.
“This is bigger than winning the Stanley Cup as far as I’m concerned,” said Esposito, who had won the Cup just a few months earlier with the Boston Bruins. “This is as excited as I’ve ever been in my life. I was excited Saturday night in Montreal, but this is even bigger.”
Now that the teams knew each other’s strengths and weaknesses, Game Three was played as evenly as one might expect between two hockey powers. Canada twice had two-goal leads, but the Soviets rallied in a second period in which five of the game’s eight goals were scored. And although the third period was scoreless, it was not without many great scoring chances at both ends of the ice.
Sinden made only one coaching change, taking out Bill Goldsworthy and inserting Jean Ratelle, while Bobrov made six changes, most notably inserting two youngsters into his lineup, Yuri Lebedev and Alexander Bodunov. They played on a “kid line” with Vyacheslav Anisin, the three 21-year-olds giving the Soviets needed spark. They had taken the Soviets to victory a year previous at the World Student Games in Lake Placid, and they were hands down the best forward line this night.
Canada was lucky to come away from the hard-hitting first period with a 2-1, but they seemed to take control early in the second. J-P Parise and Wayne Cashman got the puck deep in the Soviet end, and Cashman made a great pass to Phil Esposito in the slot. Phil drilled a one-timer over the glove of Tretiak.
Valeri Kharlamov made it 3-2, though, but again Canada upped its lead to two goals again off a lovely pass from Bobby Clarke and a little bit of luck. His pass through centre was badly missed by Soviet defenceman Viktor Kuzkin, and Paul Henderson zipped in to get the puck and snap a quick shot to Tretiak’s stick side.
The only goal of dubious quality came with 5:01 to go in the second when a Valeri Vasiliev point shot was deflected in front by Yuri Lebedev to make it 4-3. Then, just like Esposito in the slot, Bodunov took a pass from Anisin in the corner and fired a quick shot past “Tony O” to tie the game.
Both teams had great chances in the third period, but no finer play occurred than one in which Clarke made a perfect pass from behind the Soviet net to Henderson all alone in front. He let the shot go immediately and raised his hands to celebrate the goal—but at the same time Tretiak was snapping his glove in the air to catch the puck, making a save that helped establish his reputation as one of the greats.
The game ended in a 4-4 tie, and after three games the teams were dead even – a win, a loss, and a tie.
Who knows how history might have changed had Soviet coach Vsevelod Bobrov been able to ice the lineup he wanted for Game Four. In Winnipeg, he had hoped to start backup goalie Viktor Zinger, but Zinger was fighting the flu and was unable to play. Again this night in Vancouver, Zinger was supposed to start, but he was still too weak. Tretiak started again and was sensational.
For whatever reason, Canada started the game in an ornery mood, one marked by many, many cheap shots which the Soviets received without retaliating. Bill Goldsworthy, in the lineup for the first time since Game Two, took two senseless penalties early in the game, and the Soviets capitalized on both.
And so Canada fell behind 2-0, a deficit it couldn’t overcome. Worse, Dryden struggled and the fans started to boo, first with impatience, then with anger. The Soviets dominated the first period and were full measure for their 2-0 lead. Canada’s best chances to get into the game came early in the second. Newcomer Gilbert Perreault went end-to-end on a dash, and as he ran out of room he slipped the puck in front of the Soviet goal. It hit defenceman Alexander Ragulin and went past Tretiak to make it a 2-1 game.
Moments later, Ron Ellis made a great rush and was stopped by Tretiak, who slid well out of his crease and lost control of the puck. But Gennadi Tsygankov checked Bobby Clarke inches from the goal line before the Canadian could slide the puck into the open net to tie the game. The play was soon followed by a third Soviet goal. Pat Stapleton lost the puck at the Soviet blue line and Vladimir Petrov broke out with Yuri Blinov on a two-on-one. They converted the play perfectly for a 3-1 lead.
If Canada were going to get back into the game, a sequence of plays a short time later decided matters. Phil Esposito set up Yvan Cournoyer for two breakaways in a matter of seconds, but Tretiak was there to make the save on both occasions. The result was never in doubt after that.
In the third period the booing by the fans in Vancouver intensified with every missed pass by the Canadians, every good piece of forechecking by the Soviets, and every play that indicated this would be a bad loss for the home side.
Canada did make it a 4-2 game when Phil Esposito’s long shot rang off the crossbar and Goldsworthy knocked in the rebound. Initially “Espo” was credited with the goal, and things were so bad that when the p.a. announcer corrected the scoring and gave the goal to Goldsworthy, the crowd booed lustily.
After the game, Phil Esposito was interviewed on ice by Johnny Esaw, the boos very much fresh in his mind. He spoke what he felt, and “the speech” became a turning point in every living room across the country and underscored the growing importance of the series.
“To the people across Canada, we tried,” he said, sweating profusely, angry, defiant, proud. “We gave it our best. For the people that boo us, geez... all of us guys are really disheartened, and we’re disillusioned, and we’re disappointed in some of the people. We cannot believe the bad press we’ve got... the booing we’ve gotten in our own buildings... I cannot believe it! Some of our guys are really, really down in the dumps... Every one of us guys, 35 guys that came out and played for Team Canada, we did it because we love our country and not for any other reason, no other reason... And I don’t think it’s fair that we should be booed.”