For 1970-71 the NHL went to a balanced schedule, with each team playing each other team 6 times, three at home and three on the road, without regard to divisional alignment. Nevertheless, playoff qualification was determined entirely by divisional standings with the top four teams in each division qualifying.
This season saw a marked increase in goal scoring, especially by the Boston Bruins, who shattered dozens of scoring records as they set the mark for most goals by a team (399) by nearly a hundred over the previous record holder. They also set records for most victories (57) and points (121). Phil Esposito set records for most goals in a season with 76 and for most points with 152. Defenceman Bobby Orr won his second consecutive Hart Trophy and set a new record for assists with 102. The Bruins also had the four league leading scorers, the first time in history this was achieved (the only other time being by the Bruins in 1974), and seven of the top eleven leading scorers, the only time in NHL history this has ever been achieved. They had 6 of the top 8 scorers in the league. Furthermore, the Bruins set marks for the highest scoring single season marks at every position: center (Esposito), left wing (Johnny Bucyk with 116), right wing (Ken Hodge with 105) and defense (Orr), as well as for a forward line (Esposito centering Wayne Cashman and Hodge).
Boston won the East Division championship in a runaway. In the West Division, the powerful Chicago Black Hawks had been moved there partially to accommodate the expansion Buffalo Sabres and Vancouver Canucks (both of which were placed in the East Division) but more in an effort to provide greater balance between the divisions. Chicago broke St. Louis' stranglehold over the division, winning handily over the Blues and advancing to the Stanley Cup finals.
The Montreal Canadiens, who missed the playoffs in 1969–70, appeared to be sinking once more. Players did not like Claude Ruel's dictatorial rule as coach, and Ralph Backstrom and John Ferguson retired. Ruel resigned and Al MacNeil took over. Both Ferguson and Backstrom returned, but Backstrom was later traded to Los Angeles for draft choices.
The Vancouver Canucks played well at first and were around the .500 mark at mid-season. Then Orland Kurtenbach was injured and the team sagged.
On October 29, Gordie Howe became the first player to record 1000 assists in a 5–3 win over Boston at the Detroit Olympia.
Detroit introduced a fine rookie goaltender, Jim Rutherford, who had bright moments despite the Red Wings last place finish. However, they suffered their worst defeat in franchise history January 2, when Toronto crushed them 13–0.
On March 12, Boston's Phil Esposito broke Bobby Hull's record for goals by a player in a season at 7:03 of the first period on Denis DeJordy of Los Angeles at the Forum in Inglewood, California. Then, at 15:40 he became the first player to score 60 goals. The Bruins won 7–2.
Due to three straight years of non-competitive finals (where the Western Division winning St. Louis Blues were swept all 3 years by an established Eastern Division club); the NHL changed the matchups for the semi finals by having the winner of the series between the 1st and 3rd Eastern division teams play the winner of the 2nd and 4th Western division teams. Similarly, the other semi-final series pitted the winner of the 1st vs 3rd Western division teams against the winner of the 2nd vs 4th Eastern division teams. Combined with the transfer of the Chicago Black Hawks into the Western Division (which previously consisted only of expansion teams), the Stanley Cup Final series was expected to be more competitive. The realignment and change in playoff format brought the desired results in that each Stanley Cup Final for the next 3 years was either between two Eastern Division teams or an Eastern Division team vs Chicago. None of the finals were sweeps. Until realignment in 1974-75 when the original six and expansion teams were more thoroughly mixed, the Philadelphia Flyers were the only Western Division/1967 expansion team to reach a Cup final (they won).
A significant controversy arose before the playoffs. With 4 games to play, the Minnesota North Stars were in 3rd place with a record of 28-30-16 for 72 points while the Philadelphia Flyers were in 4th at 26-33-15 for 67 points. Minnesota then lost their final four games while the Flyers went 2-0-2 to jump ahead of Minnesota in the final standings by 1 point. It was widely rumored that Minnesota did so to avoid playing the far superior Chicago Black Hawks, since at this time in the playoffs the first place team played the third place team and the second played the fourth. Nothing was proven against the North Stars (who defeated their first round opponents, St. Louis, four games to two, while the Flyers were swept by the powerful Black Hawks), but the format was changed the following year to the 1 vs. 4/2 vs.3 format that prevailed thereafter.
(E1) Boston Bruins vs. (E3) Montreal Canadiens
The Montreal Canadiens were matched against the Boston Bruins, and in one of the most extraordinary upsets in hockey history, Ken Dryden was hot in goal for the Canadiens as they ousted the Bruins in seven games. Game 2 featured what many perceive as one of the greatest comebacks in NHL history. With the Bruins leading 5–2 heading into the third period, the Canadiens, who had trailed 5–1, scored 5 goals in the final session to win 7–5. The prominent Canadian sports journalist Red Fisher lists the Canadiens' comeback has the 8th most memorable moment in his over 49 years of covering hockey. In game 4, Bobby Orr became the first defenceman to get a hat trick in a playoff game when Boston won 5–2.
(W1) Chicago Black Hawks vs. (E2) New York Rangers
Bobby Hull and the Chicago Black Hawks were just too much for the Rangers and the Black Hawks advanced to the finals in seven games. Hull won two games with goals on face-offs, despite Glen Sather's coverage of him to check him.
(E3) Montreal Canadiens vs. (W4) Minnesota North Stars
The Canadiens' upset of Boston was so sensational that the Canadiens nearly suffered a fatal letdown against the Minnesota North Stars. The Canadiens' 6–3 loss in Montreal on April 22 to Minnesota, led by the goaltending of Cesare Maniago, would be the first playoff defeat for an Original Six team at the hands of a 1967 Expansion franchise.
The 1971 Stanley Cup final was played by the Montreal Canadiens and the Chicago Black Hawks. The series went the full seven games, with the Canadiens winning in Chicago despite trailing 2–0 halfway into the second period of game seven. Jacques Lemaire took a shot from centre ice that miraculously escaped goaltender Tony Esposito, cutting the Black Hawks' lead to 2–1. Henri Richard tied the game just before the end of the second period, and scored again 2:34 into the third, giving the Habs the lead. Montreal goalie Ken Dryden kept Chicago off the board for the rest of the game, and the Habs won their third Stanley Cup in four years. It was the final game for Canadien superstar and captain Jean Beliveau, who retired after the season. The Canadiens were the last road team to win a Game 7 of a Stanley Cup Final until the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2009. It was Al MacNeil's final game as Montreal coach — after he had benched Richard for Game 5, The Pocket Rocket declared that "[MacNeil] is the worst coach I ever played for!" Although Richard retracted his "angry comment", as he called it, MacNeil still resigned.
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