One of the troubles with expansion style hockey is the rarity of those classic confrontations that the established clubs built up over decades and staged at least 14 times a year. Last Saturday night, praise be, the Montreal Canadiens and the Chicago Black Hawks briefly restored the good old days with a grudge match in the Forum.
For the Black Hawks it was their first chance to avenge what the Canadiens did to them in the Stanley Cup final six months ago. For the Canadiens it was a time to prove that beating the Black Hawks had been no fluke. "I'm certain a lot of people don't think the best team won," said Montreal's Peter Mahovlich. "I do."
The personal match-ups were well established during the cup finals. Keith Magnuson, the brash young Chicago defenseman, was waiting impatiently to resume his hostilities with Jacques Lemaire and Henri Richard. "I've got to get out and hit somebody right away, to get things going our way," he said. Magnuson could not forget how Richard had skated around him and scored the cup-winning goal in the seventh game.
Rejean (Peanuts) Houle, the little Montreal wing, was not quite that impatient. He was assigned to check Bobby Hull, who could, if provoked, lift Houle with one hand and deposit him in the red seats. "I just try to skate alongside him," Houle said, "and when he skates away I hook or trip or do what I must to stop him. There is no other way."
For the purists at the Forum, the supreme confrontation was that of Hull and Montreal's Frank Mahovlich—the Golden Jet and the Big M. They are the highest-scoring left wings in history, and when they played against each other 14 times a season the games looked like shoot-outs staged by C. B. DeMille. Hull would charge up the ice, shedding defenders effortlessly and then fire his slap shot from 30 feet at a petrified goal-tender. The next minute Mahovlich would take the puck down the ice, skating majestically in long strides, traveling faster than he looked, and blast away at another petrified goalie from 30 feet.
Both have changed since then. Hull, 32, probably will never score 50 goals again because now he skates both ways. "If it's 50-50 whether I can get to a puck and get a shot away," he says, "I forget the shot and worry about my check." He plays only 25 minutes a game, not 45, and as a result expects to survive as a player a few extra years.
"I like to think of myself as a car," he says. "If you go 90 mph all the time, you tear it down."
Mahovlich, 33, has thrived emotionally on the hockey atmosphere in Montreal since the Canadiens acquired him from Detroit last January. "For the first time in his career Frank does not have big pressure on him," says Jean Beliveau. "He always used to be a tense man. Now look at him; he is so relaxed."
Throughout his career Mahovlich has never satisfied his critics, particularly Punch Imlach, who was his coach in Toronto. "Even when I scored 48 goals for the Leafs," Frank said last week, "they were not happy."
Imlach traded Frank to Detroit, where he played on a line with Alex Delvecchio and Gordie Howe. "Things were fine there until [General Manager Ned] Harkness arrived," he said. "Ned had too many wheels turning. He kept talking about a new concept, and when I'd ask him what he meant he never gave me the right answer. Now, take Bobby Hull. Give him a puck, a stick and a pair of skates and put him on your team. Do you need a new concept?"
As he spoke, Mahovlich was the hottest gunner in the NHL, with 13 goals in 11 games. "The amazing thing," said Coach Scotty Bowman, "is that he has taken only 35 shots. That's almost 40%. Just incredible."
As the game began, hostilities flared immediately. Stan Mikita crashed into J. C. Tremblay, and then Magnuson and Pete Mahovlich battered each other. Even little Houle ran at Magnuson. What Houle—and Claude Larose, at times—did to Hull was practically criminal, and Bobby got only one shot on Montreal's Ken Dryden all night. Mahovlich got less attention—but no more shots. Thus, as the heavyweights sparred, the outcome turned on the performances of supporting players—especially the goalies.
Midway in the second period Chicago Defenseman Bill White, the best player on the ice this night, scored from a face-off, and Chicago led 1-0. Rookie Guy Lafleur, who is groping to find his way, tied the score with a blast past Chicago's Gary Smith. Then, near the end of the period, Magnuson erupted. He held Lemaire against the boards and, noticing that Referee Bill Friday was calling a penalty, started to punch Lemaire. Eventually Lemaire retaliated. Friday gave Magnuson three two-minute minor penalties for his conduct and Lemaire only two minutes altogether.
The Black Hawks, thanks to superb defensive work by White and Pat Stapleton, survived Magnuson's four minutes alone in the penalty box. But in the third period Guy Lapointe, the second-year Montreal defenseman, took the puck from Dryden, skated the length of the ice and, with a neat move, beat Smith. That won the game for Montreal 2-1.
"He made a great play," Reay said. "We have no complaints, except that we didn't win, of course."
"I don't know where we would have been without Dryden," Bowman said afterward. "He keeps making the big saves. Why, they've scored on him in only six of the last 21 periods he has played."
Flying to Boston, where Frank Mahovlich scored the winning goal in a 3-2 victory over the Bruins Sunday night, Bowman admitted to being depressed about the Canadiens' performance so far this year, even though they were close on the heels of New York, "These guys turned it on for six weeks last year and they won the cup," he said. "They think they can do it again. They're winning now, but some night Dryden won't be back there and they'll see how different things can be.
"Dryden has had more than 30 shots on him in 10 of our 12 games. The players are beginning to think he's a miracle worker. Well, he was last year. And the way they're playing, he'll have to be a miracle worker again this year."
Next Hawk-Canadien confrontation: Nov. 24 in Chicago. Biggest miracle will be getting a ticket.