#TBT: They called him “The Cat”

I give goal tenders a hard time. I have high expectations for any net minder. They spend the most time on the ice, they have a single job, one that requires extreme skill and focus, and they are the last line of defence. I believe strongly that to build a complete team you need to start at the net. 

I come by this attitude honestly. I was raised in an era of not just good, but great goal tenders. I feel as though anyone with an eye on the job in the Leafs’ crease better be worthy of wearing the blue and white. And clearly not all of them are.

So for today’s #TBT I bring you to an amazing first-round playoff series between the Chicago Blackhawks and the Leafs. A goal tender’s series. 

The year was 1994. I was 12, and a young goaltender named Felix Potvin was 22. He had just finished his second season in the NHL with a 2.89 GAA record, proving to the world that not everyone succumbs to the sophomore slump, and he was about to take on Chicago Blackhawks’ goal tender Ed Belfour. 

THE RUNDOWN

GAME 1: April 18, 1994

Potvin faced-off against Belfour at Maple Leaf Gardens to open the series. Belfour was also a great goalie that would someday wear the Leafs jersey and do us all proud, but in this series he wasn’t very Leaf friendly, but we’ll get to that.

The Leafs started this one off with a bang. With 28 shots on goal and goals by Andreychuk, Clark, Gilmour, Macoun, and Manderville, the Buds walked away with it 5-1. Chelios scored the Blackhawks’ only goal leaving them down one to start the series. 

Interestingly enough, the Blackhawks also took 28 shots on net. It wasn’t just Potvin’s luck or home ice advantage that caused his save average to be that much better than Belfour’s in this game. Potvin’s skill would prove crucial to winning not just the game, but the series.

GAME 2: April 20, 1994

Game 2 was also on home ice. Looking to make up their loss from the previous game, Belfour wouldn’t let one in until overtime. Not to be out done Potvin improved his average too and wouldn’t let one in at all, making this game the first of three shut out games for Potvin in the series.

Todd Gill’s overtime goal would prove controversial because Clark may or may not have been in the crease, depending on who you listen to. It was ultimately called in favour of the Leafs, who would go into the third game of the series 2-0. Belfour’s comments about the call were not pretty. 

You can watch the goal and Belfour’s subsequent comments here:

GAME 3: April 23, 1994

Back at home the Blackhawks were hungry. Not wanting to lose another game and make it all but impossible to come back, they brought everything they had. The Leafs weren’t slacking either, however. This is really one series where you can see not only two evenly matched goalies, but really evenly matched teams.

Each team had 33 shots on net and the final score was 4-5 for Chicago. Leafs goals were scored by Berg, Ellett (2), and Mironov.

The Hawks’ Tony Amonte scored an impressive 4 goals that night, leaving Joe Murphy to score the other one.

GAME 4: April 24, 1994

Game four would again show just how similar these two teams were, and how just one moment of lost focus in the net can prove fatal to a team. Still in Chicago the Leafs would out-shoot the Blackhawks 37-29, but Potvin’s average would slump just enough against Belfour to make the outcome 3-4 for the team from the windy city.

Leafs goals were scored by Andreychuk, Gilmour, and Pearson. Chicago had another hat trick up their sleeve as Suter scored 3, and Roenick rounded it out.

GAME 5: April 26, 1994

With an even series the teams took it back to the Gardens for what would be the second shut-out game of three Potvin would deal out. Mike Eastwood scored the only goal for the Leafs, and the game was finished at the end of regular play.

This game was one that really showed the power of a good goalie. But It was Belfour that deserved the cudos, not Potvin. The Leafs’ single goal came from 37 shots on net, while Potvin was only required to defend against 17. While Belfour’s average was .973 to Potvin’s 1.00, he had to face 20 more shots on net and allowed only one. This is the epitome of good goal tending and good hockey.

GAME 6: April 28, 1994

Chicago hosted the last game of the series, which would also be the last game ever played at Chicago Stadium. The sentimentalist in me thinks it would have been nice if they could have won that game, but Belfour let Gartner slip one past him and the game wouldn’t even go into overtime.

In a near reversal of game 5, Potvin blocked 27 shots, while Belfour faced just 18. It was all over and the Leafs would go on to face San Jose in round two.

THREE STARS OF THE SERIES

There were definitely more than three stars in this series that was the definition of exciting playoff hockey, you can’t get much better than watching these two teams face off against each other, but since this isn’t Timbits hockey and we can’t all get a trophy, I’ve listed four here.

1. Tony Amonte and Gary Suter: Hat tricks for every one! These guys saw what needed to get done, and they did it. Hat tricks don’t come along very often, so to see two in one series is impressive. Hats off.

2. Felix Potvin: Three shut outs. Three. Potvin is, in my opinion, one of the best goal tenders in Leafs history. His skill, focus, and stamina really showed in this series.

3. Ed Belfour: Another great (eventual Leafs) goalie. Belfour let 14 goals slip past him in this series, in comparison to Potvin’s 10, but his skill was equal. Even with talent like this you can’t win them all, and Belfour was an amazing opponent.

I’ve always maintained that more shots equals more goals. It’s just the law of averages. But what determines a game when both teams are equally matched offensively? Goal tending. This amazing and exciting series was a great example of that.

  • Gary Empey

    Man I loved the cat!!!!!! Growing up he was who I wanted to be, i copied his stance. And I remember having a poster of him in his stance, with the net on fire behind him in my room. He was my favourite ever, I’m yet to love a goalie since then the way I loved Felix ‘The Cat’ Potvin. Also, the helmet with the cat face, and those sweet pads with the fire, what an awesome look!!!!!

  • First off, Potvin had the best mask of any goalie in history and there’s no debating it. Closest would be the Eagle I guess.

    I remember during this series, not sure which game, but I was at my minor hockey year-end banquet and the coaches and directors were giving game updates in between handing out awards and whatnot. Truly the roots of Leafs fandom for me.

  • Jeremy Ian

    Great reminder. For someone who limped through the horrible 70s and 80s, it felt great to enter the early 90s with that great turnaround. Fletcher had some moxy to trade Grant Fuhr and let Potvin shoulder the team.