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April 17, 2014
LCS Top 100: No. 5
by Michael Menser Dell, Editor-in-Chief
Richard made two significant changes for the 1943-44 season. First, he switched his number from 15 to 9 in honor of his daughter's birthday. Never underestimate the importance of a number change. Next, Montreal coach Dick Irvin shifted the left-shooting Richard to right wing alongside Elmer Lach and Toe Blake. Good decision. Richard caught fire, ringing up 32 goals in 46 games. The Punch Line was born.
In 1944-45, his third year in the league, Richard did the unthinkable, scoring 50 goals in the 50-game schedule. Prior to Richard's heroics, only two players had ever reached 40, with Quebec's Joe Malone going for 44 in 1918 and Boston's Cooney Weiland netting 43 in 1930. The league's leading goal-scorer had failed to crack even 30 goals in six of the previous 10 seasons. And Richard's 50 goals were 18 more than second-place Herb Cain, who bagged 32 for the Bruins.
With Richard filling the net, the Punch Line dominated the 1945 scoring race, with Lach leading the league with 80 points, Richard finishing second with 73, and Blake ranking third with 67.
Some historians doubt the true greatness of Richard's 50 goals since it happened during World War II, and many of the league's top players were enlisted or fighting overseas. And in fairness, league scoring dropped significantly when the boys returned from war, and Richard managed just 27 goals the following year. Yet Richard rebounded in 1946-47, firing home 45 goals over the 60-game slate. He'd have two more 40-goal seasons in his career, leading the league in goals five times and finishing second on three other occasions.
Richard's trophy case was actually pretty bare in terms of personal awards. He won the Hart in 1947, and that's it. He never won the Art Ross, finishing second in points five times, none more famously than in 1955 when suspension caused him to fall behind teammate Bernie Geoffrion by one point. Richard also played in an era before the Conn Smythe. Had the trophy existed, he probably would have won at least two, the first for his 12-goal effort in 1944 and the second for leading the playoffs with 11 goals in 10 games as a 36-year-old in 1958. As it is, he had to settle for eight Stanley Cups. Pretty nice consolation prize.
Richard's game was all about power and determination. He didn't have the hardest shot. His accuracy was shaky. And he wasn't much of a playmaker. But he had those eyes. The kind of eyes that decimated courage and wrecked souls. One glare from Richard and the opposition questioned life choices, cursing the decisions that led them to that godforsaken hell. A trained boxer, Richard had no qualms about dropping the mitts. While he didn't instigate many fights, he usually finished them and was quick to defend teammates. Richard was the picture of restrained fury. It didn't take much. One false step, just one, and the bloodletting would begin.
Richard didn't skate as much as he stabbed the ice. His speed earned him the Rocket nickname, although the moniker could have easily described his explosive temperament. He'd barrel in off right wing and maul defenders, taking the shortest route to the net and hammering shot after shot until the puck crossed the line.
Perhaps the best example of Richard's will came during Game Seven of the 1952 Stanley Cup semifinals. Early in the second period, Richard collided with Boston's Leo Labine and fell head-first into the ice. He got knocked unconscious and suffered a nasty gash over his left eye. Most mortal men would have been done for the game, if not the playoffs. But Richard was no ordinary fella. He returned to action with four minutes to go in the third period and the score tied 1-1. With a bandage on his forehead and blood dripping down his face, Richard made a mad dash up ice, barged around three Bruins, and swept the puck behind netminder Sugar Jim Henry for the winner. Richard and Henry's handshake following the game has become one of hockey's iconic images.