The Montreal Canadiens enjoyed a highly profitable and relaxing four days in St. Louis last week. They got in some golf, watched the Cardinals lose another baseball game and wagered a few bucks at the track. Then, on Sunday afternoon—sunburned and well-rested—they beat the St. Louis Blues for the fourth straight time to win their 14th Stanley Cup championship and an extra $7,500 per man.
Last year when the Blues were new to the NHL and eager to prove they belonged, they had forced the Canadiens to hustle for their four one-goal victories, two of which went into overtime. This time, however, with the exception of Sunday's game, in which they played well, the Blues looked neither hungry nor inspired, and as a result the series was an almighty bore.
"The Blues," said Canadien Defenseman Jacques Laperriere, "I think they need a few more forwards who can skate and put the puck in the net. We made many mistakes against St. Louis, many more than we usually do, but we got away with them. If we made the same mistakes against a team like Boston they would kill us."
As a practical matter, of course, the Canadiens had won the Cup the previous week by eliminating Boston in the East finals; the St. Louis series was a formality. It was not merely that St. Louis lost four straight to Montreal (the Blues are now 0-16-2 against the Canadiens), but how they lost the first three that was disturbing to a number of people—Coach Scotty Bowman in particular.
The Blues hit bottom on Thursday night as they opened at home before a record crowd of 16,338—a marvelously animated gathering that deserved something better. Fans who had applauded the Blues when they took the ice were booing them when they left. St. Louis' only goal was disallowed halfway through the first period when Referee John Ashley ruled that the puck had gone in off Frank St. Marseille's skate instead of his stick, and the Canadiens took over after that to win 4-0 and go three games up. "We looked complacent," said Bowman. "You could see that when nobody really got upset about that disallowed goal."
"Let's face it," said Boston Coach Harry Sinden, who was still recovering from his club's four razor-thin losses to Montreal. "The way things are right now the Blues can only look as good as the Canadiens will let them look. To beat Montreal you have to press them, rush them, hit them in their own end—like we did. But to do that you have to have the players—and right now we're the only club with nearly the players Montreal has. No expansion club is close."
Still one had to admire the dexterity with which the Canadiens dumped the Blues. Following the tough Boston series Montreal might understandably have taken St. Louis for granted and blown a game or two. And the Blues did have hockey's best goaltenders in Jacques Plante and Glenn Hall.
"After playing Boston it was a little tough to get up for these guys," said Montreal's John Ferguson, who scored the winning goal in Sunday's 2-1 victory. "But you've got to remember that we don't fool around when there's a lot of jack at stake. Almost everybody has some kind of bonus that depends on how we do in the playoffs. People talk about the magic of Montreal and things like that. Well, we're all in this thing to make money, and when we've got a chance to do it we're not going to blow it."
The Canadiens, moreover, seemed to get a special kick out of scoring on Plante, who performed well in the first game but rather lackadaisically in the third. Plante had played for 10 years in Montreal, and when he was traded to New York in 1963 he left few close friends on the Canadiens. During the regular season Bowman had refrained from using Plante against the Canadiens (and Hall, an ex-Black Hawk, against Chicago), but in the Montreal series he decided to alternate his goaltenders.
"Because of Plante we worked harder against St. Louis," said Laperriere. "Plante talks about us. He talks too much. It starts when he leaves us and goes to New York. He talks and talks."
"When I see those eyes looking out from behind that mask, I want my shots to come from cannons," said little Yvan Cournoyer, who has the stick to do just that kind of gunning.
Even the stately Jean Beliveau—surely the most valuable player in the playoffs—seemed to get extra satisfaction from setting up three goals for Dick Duff on Plante. In a New York game several years ago Beliveau had stolen the puck and broken in on Jacques all by himself. A master of the breakaway goal, Beliveau could have done the job quickly—but in this instance he took a few extra seconds. He faked this way and then that. Only when he had Plante hopelessly sprawled on the ice did he slip the puck into the goal. Somebody asked Beliveau about it afterward. "I just wanted to make Jacques swim a little," he said.
Unfortunately, fans outside St. Louis and Montreal were swimming in a sea of apathy last week, and this should give the NHL governors something to ponder when they meet in Montreal next month. Last year, because Glenn Hall had a particularly hot hand and Beliveau was injured, the Cup finals were more exciting than anyone had expected they would be. Last week's games have revived talk of a playoff setup with interdivisional matchups in the semifinals so as to get the league's two best teams into the finals. The chances of such a plan being adopted, however, are slim. Since the NHL'S established owners want to help the new ones make money in every way except by providing them with good hockey players, they are almost certain to continue the present system.
"In the long run this will be best," said Frank Selke Jr., general manager of the Oakland Seals and a member of the NHL's playoff committee. "When the new clubs reach parity with the old and their rivalries have been fully developed, the playoffs in the West should be just as dramatic and exciting as those in the East. There's one change we've got to make, though. We've got to make sure the finals open in the rink of the West team, so that the West club has at least a chance to win one of the first two games. With St. Louis opening in Montreal this year, there was no way the Blues could come back home any better than 0-2."