1974-1975: SMITH LEADS CANUCKS TO POST SEASON
His financial empire crumbling, Tom Scallen sold the Canucks in the off-season for $9 million to Western Broadcasting Co., a communications conglomerate owned by Frank A. Griffiths. The upper management of the team was reshuffled, and Hal Laycoe found himself out of the organization while Phil Maloney was promoted to General Manager, while continuing to coach the club. Suddenly, there was a new attitude around the team.
Everyone seemed to improve, but it was the goaltending of Gary Smith above everything else. A sign of what was to come came on October 20, when Smith made 44 saves in a 1-0 shutout win at Madison Square Garden over the Rangers. Ranger forward Pete Stemkowski, who had been stymied several times by Smith on the night, commented that they could have kept playing until three in the morning without beating Smith. When Smith heard Stemkowski's comment, he quipped, "He should have seen me at three in the morning." The team roared out to a 22-10-5 record by the end of December. On New Year's Day, the Canucks hosted the Philadelphia Flyers in a showdown between the top two teams in the Campbell Conference. The game was also a showdown between the two hottest goalies in the league -- Gary Smith and Bernie Parent. The Vancouver fans, who eagerly anticipated the contest, were given more fuel when Flyers coach Fred Shero remarked that the Canucks were a one-man team (referring to Smith). Parent and the Flyers won the battle, shutting out the Canucks 2-0. The Canucks then headed out on an eastern road trip and lost all six games before returning home to lose two more. The nine game losing streak would not be equalled for 10 years and suddenly brought the Canucks back to the middle of the pack. They would accumulate 32 points over the next 32 games. On Feb 11, Gary Smith recorded his sixth shutout of the season in a 4-0 win over Kansas City, and some started wondering if he would not only make the First All-Star Team, but also possibly contend for the Hart Trophy as league MVP. Smith appeared in 72 of the first 77 games, racking up a 32-24-9 record and a sparking 3.09 goals-against average. On April 1, the Canucks hosted California to begin a home-and-home series. Backup goalie Ken "Spider" Lockett started and shut out the Seals, 7-0. The next night, in Oakland, Lockett was again given the start and he shut out the Seals again, this time 4-0. Ken Lockett became the first Canuck goalie to post back-to-back shutouts and along with Smith's six, added up to a team record of eight in a season. Lockett was given a third-straight start on April 4 against Minnesota, but had his shutout string snapped in the first period. Still, the Canucks won 4-1 to finish the season on a three-game winning streak, giving the team a final record of 38-32-10. The 86 points gave the Canucks first place in the Smythe Division, and a bye through the Preliminary Round to the Quarter-Finals. It wasn't only masterful goaltending that achieved this, though. Andre Boudrias won yet another team scoring crown, once again breaking his own club records for assists (62) and points (78) in a season. Don Lever's 38 goals tied Bobby Schmautz's team record, and with 34 goals, RW John Gould became the fourth member of the Canucks 30-goal club. The two men finished with 68 and 65 points, respectively.
They were in the playoffs for the first time in their young history, but unfortunately the second round seeds were determined by the overall standings, not division standings. The sixth-seeded Canucks had the misfortune of drawing the mighty Montreal Canadiens, who were seeded third, as Quarter-Final opponents. The Canucks had not beaten the Canadiens once in 26 career meetings (0-23-3). The series began at the Montreal Forum on April 13 and the Canadiens continued their domination of the Canucks, winning easily 6-2. Two nights later, the Canucks came much more prepared to play the defensive system needed to win in the playoffs. The Habs held the edge in play but Smith was spectacular in goal, keeping the score tied 1-1 into the late going. With under six minutes to play, LW Gary Monahan sent a low shot from the high slot through traffic that eluded Ken Dryden to give the Canucks a 2-1 lead. The Habs threw everything they had at Smith in the final few minutes, but he was equal to the task. The series was even. On April 15, the Pacific Coliseum played host to its first ever Stanley Cup playoff game. According to play-by-play man Jim Robson, the two games of this series played in Vancouver were the loudest hockey crowds this city had ever seen prior to 1982. The two teams were once again tied through two periods, this time with the Canucks, pumped by their fans, putting the Canadiens back on their heels and forcing Dryden to make several spectacular saves. The big guns of the bleu-blanc et rouge -- especially the line of Pete Mahovlich, Guy Lafleur, and Steve Shutt -- woke up in the third period, though, peppering Smith from every angle and scoring twice on him and adding an empty-netter to win 4-1. Two nights later, Dryden again held his team in until his scorers woke up. This time the final was 4-0. Few gave the Canucks a chance to bring the series back to Vancouver, but this was a scrappy bunch. In Game Five, the Canadiens would gain the lead, but the Canucks kept coming back. The game was tied 4-4 through regulation time and despite several scary moments in overtime, Smith was equal to the challenge. With less than three minutes to play in the first overtime period, Lafleur attempted a centering pass from the corner. Dennis Kearns managed to get his stick on the pass, but inadvertently directed the puck past Smith into the net to win the series for Montreal. It was Lafleur's third game-winning goal of the series, and probably his easiest. Though they had fallen in five games, the Canucks had nothing to be ashamed of. They had battled the perennial powerhouse hard, and had fans across British Columbia on the edges of their seats throughout.
The successful season was also enough to drive out the Blazers. After the season, Jimmy Pattison moved his WHA team to Calgary and renamed them the Cowboys. Canucks fans felt slighted by the eastern voting when Gary Smith made neither post-season All-Star Team -- losing out to Parent and Los Angeles' Rogie Vachon -- despite finishing in fifth place in Hart Trophy balloting. But the thrills of the season and the anticipation of the season to come were more than enough consolation.