Forget, for a moment, Bernie Parent against Ken Dryden. Or Bobby Clarke against Gilbert Perreault. Or Guy Lafleur against Richard Martin. And forget the Boston Bruins, period. Unless the ice melts first, what the Stanley Cup playoffs should come down to—sometime near the end of May, long after Gordie Howe et fits lock up a second straight WHA World Cup for the Houston Aeros—is a sing-a-long shootout between M. Roger Doucet and Ms. Kate Smith, the best voices in the game. Doucet is the stately white-haired baritone whose crisp tones bring tears as he stands at center ice before Montreal home games singing O Canada. Ms. Smith, of course, is the ultimate weapon of the Philadelphia Flyers, who play her recording of God Bless America before games of mild importance but import her for a personal warbling before contests classified as crucial. Ask Bobby Orr and Phil Esposito. In her last live appearance at the Spectrum, Kate the Great, as she is known around Philadelphia, hexed the Bruins in the final game of the 1974 playoffs, and the upstart young Flyers won the cup. Now, God bless her, she is ready for an encore.
Melodies aside, as the marathon chase for Lord Stanley's $50 mug began its stretch run this week, the 12-team field consisted of but three legitimate contenders and nine pretenders with dubious credentials. The contenders—Philadelphia, Buffalo and Montreal—all finished the regular season with 113 points, all won their division handily and all will enjoy an opening-round bye, as will Vancouver, which clinched the Smythe Division championship last Friday night in the 80th and final game of the schedule. Philadelphia, however, also earned the important No. 1 seed thanks to winning two more games than the Sabres and four more than the Canadiens. The Flyers' top ranking means they will hold the home-ice advantage through the playoffs.
That fiendishly complex new format, whereby a team's point total over the regular season now determines its pecking order in each of the four playoff rounds, was also responsible for nine of the 12 cup qualifiers—including all three of the contenders—having pivotal games to play last weekend. Philadelphia, for instance, had to beat the New York Islanders and the Atlanta Flames to gain that No. 1 seed, while Buffalo had to win at Toronto in order to maintain its hold over Montreal in the win column and secure a home-ice advantage over the Canadiens in the likely event that they meet in the semifinals.
Pittsburgh captured the No. 3 seed among the non-bye teams for this week's best-of-three elimination round, and the New York Rangers gained home-ice advantage for their Expressway series against the brash Islanders in the only battle between divisional rivals. St. Louis beat Chicago and won the right to meet the Penguins, while the Black Hawks matched up with the Bruins and No. 1-seed Los Angeles squared off with the Maple Leafs.
"Listen," said Montreal Coach Scotty Bowman. "No team is safe in that first round. One hot game by a goaltender and—whoosh—you're gone." Philadelphia Captain Bobby Clarke agreed with Bowman, something he had never done before. No, don't invite Clarke and Bowman to the same sauna room. "The worst team could win a three-game series," Clarke explained, "but I think the best team would usually win a five-or seven-game series. All I know is that I'm glad we'll be practicing instead of playing."
Stated simply, Clarke is the major reason why Philadelphia probably will win the cup again, even if Kate Smith comes down with laryngitis. For sure, the Flyers still have Bernie Parent, who might "save more than the Lord," as bumper stickers all over Philadelphia read, and who won the Vezina Trophy with a goals-against average of 2.03. They also boast an immobile but immovable defense, have several pugnacious forwards with names like Hound (Bob Kelly), Hammer (Dave Schultz) and Bird (Don Saleski) and strong scoring threats such as Rick MacLeish, Ross Lonsberry, Bill Barber, Gary Dornhoefer and Reg Leach.
"Forget everything else because they all probably equal out somehow," said Montreal's Bowman. "The trick against the Flyers is to neutralize Clarke, but no team has ever been able to neutralize Clarke for very long. He is the best defensive forward in the game. You know, in the first 60 games, he was on the ice for only 14 goals against the Flyers. Absolutely unbelievable. At the same time you can't call him a defensive forward because he scored 27 goals and set a record with 91 assists."
Bowman shook his head slowly. "Another thing about Clarke," he said, "is that you can't say before a game that 'I hope Clarke doesn't play well tonight.' Clarke always plays well. Why? Because he's a lot smarter than the other guys. He knows the guys he can intimidate, so he intimidates them. He knows the guys to avoid, so he avoids them. And another thing. Whenever one of the Philadelphia forwards is playing badly, they put him on Clarke's line and he immediately begins to play well. Clarke is the salvation for a lot of their guys."
Clarke smiled when informed about Bowman's comments. "He's just trying to psych out everyone for the playoffs," he said. "How can I intimidate anyone? With Henri Richard injured, I'm smaller than all the Montreal centers. Who's Bowman kidding, anyway?"
Montreal and Buffalo, meanwhile, approach the playoffs with peculiar perspectives. The Sabres, now the biggest, fastest and youngest team in the game, rudely whipped the Canadiens four times this season but failed to beat the Flyers in any of their four confrontations. "Playing Montreal is no trouble for my kids," said Buffalo General Manager Punch Imlach, "because we're basically a skating club, like the Canadiens. We also have a lot of young French-Canadians who always give an extra burst against Montreal. But when we go against Philadelphia, we never know what to expect, a battle or a hockey game."
Loosely translated, what Imlach means is that Buffalo's French Connection line of Center Gilbert Perreault and Wings Richard Martin and Rene Robert—easily the most potent collective force in the NHL—decimated the Canadiens in every game, particularly in Montreal, but rarely dented the Flyers' defenses, especially in Philadelphia.
Philadelphia handles the French Connection by playing Clarke against Perreault most of the time and assigning Winger Gary Dornhoefer to remain at Martin's side, or even closer than that. "The secret against Perreault," said Clarke, "is to force him to one side of the ice, either side, and take away half his skating room. If you let him skate, there's no way you can stop him."
To make the finals, Buffalo must conquer inexperience and a questionable goaltending situation. "We don't have much experience, that's for sure," said 22-year-old Captain Jim Schoenfeld, one of the five monster defensemen that the Sabres seem to have borrowed from the Buffalo Bills. Imlach thinks he shored up his goaltending with the recent acquisition of Gerry Desjardins, who jumped from the Islanders to the WHA this season, then leapt back to the NHL when the Michigan Stags moved to Baltimore. But Desjardins might also lack the particular type of experience Imlach is seeking; he has played in only one Stanley Cup game in his six NHL seasons.
Montreal has no goaltending worries, now that Ken Dryden has completely regained the form he displayed before taking his sabbatical last year, but Bowman—a basic worrywart—always manages to find some kind of problem. Forward Guy Lafleur doesn't qualify, not with his record 53 goals. Neither does Center Pete Mahovlich with his 35 goals and 81 assists. Bowman, though, cannot understand why Left Wing Steve Shutt will not stay behind Mahovlich and Lafleur as a trailer on their rushes. "If Shutt stays back," Bowman said, "it would be like following two millionaires around. All he has to do is pick up their loose change and he'll get rich." But Shutt hardly is a candidate for food stamps either, having scored 30 goals.
Bowman does have one legitimate worry: Yvan Cournoyer. Remember Cournoyer the speedster? Forget Cournoyer the speedster. For now, anyway. Bothered by various leg injuries and groin pulls, he skates only as fast as the other players on the ice; consequently, his goal production dropped this year from 40 to 29 and he became a utility man. "You will hear from me in the playoffs," Cournoyer said.
Don't expect to hear too much from the Boston Bruins, last season's cup finalists. Despite Orr, who scored a record 47 goals for a defenseman and won the scoring championship with 135 points, and despite Esposito, who managed to score 61 goals even though one of his regular linemates, Wayne Cashman, was injured much of the time and the other, Ken Hodge, was ineffective, the Bruins barely crawled to the finish line behind Buffalo in the Adams Division. Not even the most diehard Gallery God in the Boston Garden thinks their season will last into May.
Still, we can expect to hear from Yvan Cournoyer, or so he says. And, for sure, from M. Doucet and Ms. Smith.