MONTREAL -- Mike Liut again was brilliant. And the Whalers, a team that refused to quit all season, went out on their shields.
But Claude Lemieux, a rookie seemingly immune to the overtime pressure, found a chink in Liut's armor and lifted a backhander over the goaltender's glove at 5 minutes, 55 seconds of overtime to end the Whalers' dream season.
Lemieux stepped past Whalers right winger Paul MacDermid from a scramble behind the net and scooped a backhander just under the crossbar to give the Montreal Canadiens a 2-1 victory in the decisive Game 7 of the Adams Division finals Tuesday night.
The Canadiens advance to the Wales Conference finals against the New York Rangers on Thursday night. Game 1 of the best-of-seven semifinal series will be at the Forum.
"The letdown is hard to take," Whalers coach Jack Evans said. "The team played so well. I can't say enough about Mike Liut."
In the Canadiens' locker room, Lemieux said he detected a weakness to Liut's glove side in the morning skate and stashed it away in his memory bank. He pulled it out for the dramatic series winner.
"I was holding the post, although I didn't know where the puck was with all those guys standing there," Liut said. "Then, I saw him [Lemieux] with the puck in front of the net. I took a step out and he threw it back. Anything can happen in overtime. And it did."
With 7:21 remaining in the third period, the 17,546 Montreal Forum fans began stamping to a deafening beat.
After Mike McPhee had scored a short-handed goal with 1:13 left in the first period after swiping the puck from Ron Francis, the minutes mounted upon minutes without another goal.
With 2:48 left in this splendid hockey game, defenseman Dave Babych dramatically tied the game at 1-1 with a rising 50-foot slap shot that beat rookie goaltender Patrick Roy to the glove side. Dean Evason had gained control of the puck near the blue line in the Hartford zone, skated up ice, crossed the blue line and dropped the pass for Babych. Babych, with a bad groin and hip, had struggled at times in this game. But he made his first playoff goal this season count in a big way.
Dave Tippett had broken up a Bobby Smith for Mats Naslund passing play in the slot area in front of Liut."You won't see the play in the replays, but Dave made a great play," Evason said. "He hit Naslund and the puck squirted out. Fortunately, I was curling right at the time. I went down and just tried to drop it right for Dave Babych. He's got a great shot."
"I was due," Babych said. "But the way things are going that last goal might have put them in the finals.""I think we showed tonight that we never give up," Evason said. "I guess if there's a way to go out, this is the way. It could have gone either way. It just showed how evenly matched it was. Everybody pulled their weight."
Tippett, his eyes reddened with disappointment, said: "Losing the last game is the worst feeling in the world."
Liut played another great game, making 30 saves. Roy halted 24.
The Whalers had a great scoring chance in the first minute of the third period, but Roy produced brilliant saves on Ron Francis and left winger Paul Lawless.
"That first shift of the third period with Ronnie, Lawly and Wayne Babych, I honestly thought we were going to win," center Ray Ferraro said. "Then, when Babs scored, I thought we had it."
"To say at the beginning of the year that we would be one goal away from winning the division, nobody would have thought it was possible. We have to be proud of what we accomplished. This team made believers of a lot of people."
"To be honest, the Stanley Cup is up for grabs. If we had won this one, we might have walked into the finals. Who knows."
If the Whalers wanted favorable situations to start Game 7, referee Andy van Hellemond certainly obliged. In the opening 21:35, the Whalers had five power-play opportunities. The Canadiens had two.
Yet it was the Canadiens who assumed the 1-0 lead at 18:47 of the first period on McPhee's short-handed goal.
Francis, manning the right point on the power play, made the mistake. Moving in some from the point, Francis was about to make a pass toward the left side. McPhee broke it up and got a step or two on Francis. McPhee is no speed demon and he was huffing and puffing to Liut, but Francis has a bad ankle and he didn't catch him. Francis tried to hook him, but didn't stop McPhee. The Canadiens winger drove a shot 15-foot shot off Liut's pad and through his legs.
The Whalers entered the game 0-for-16 on the power play since the second game of the series. Liut, in fact, had to stop the two short-handed breakaways by Guy Carbonneau. One arrived in the first minute of the first period when Carbonneau stole the puck from Babych but Liut got his right pad on a forehander. The second arrived in the second period after Bob Gainey had burned Ulf Samuelsson with a move and fed Carbonneau. Liut was there to make a glove save.
"More than anything I think our power play really killed us," right winger Kevin Dineen said.
"They had their best three chances of the game short-handed," Evans said.
Yet the Whalers, to their immense credit, never gave up. They staged a 12-3-1 stretch to make the playoffs. They swept first-place Quebec in the opening round. And, then, they took Montreal into overtime in the seventh game of the division finals.
"It's an awfully tough way to lose, but we went down fighting and went down like men," defenseman Joel Quenneville said. "When we look back we'll realize how much we accomplished."
"But boy, I really did think in the locker room before overtime we were going to win."
A rookie named Claude Lemieux, with an eye on Mike Liut's glove, had other ideas.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun