That clunk-clunk-clunk you hear in the background is the hockey Establishment being gobbled up by a runaway Zamboni machine. Skip the flowers, but the old National Hockey League died of terminal expansion last week when the Montreal Canadiens—those storied Canadiens, Les Canadiens Sont L√†, the rouge, blanc et blue, Beliveau and Richard and Morenz and all that—went belly-up right there in front of the loyalists in the Forum, knocked off by the feisty young Buffalo Sabres. By eliminating Montreal from the Stanley Cup playoffs, Buffalo assured the first all-expansion championship series in cup history and, at the same time, no doubt persuaded Clarence Campbell to issue a ban on the use of the word "expansion" in future NHL communiqués.
In the other semifinal, those amazin' New York Islanders were threatening to give the Philadelphia Flyers a videotape replay of their stunning quarterfinal triumph over Pittsburgh, in which they had rallied from a three-game deficit to win four straight. Down three games to zilch, again, but this time against the defending champions, New York stunned the Broad Street Bullies three times last week and tied the series with Sunday's 2-1 victory at Nassau Coliseum. Along the way, the Islanders showed that the Flyers were mere mortals after all. New York ended Philadelphia's 21-game unbeaten streak, pumping 11 goals past the supposedly impregnable Bernie Parent; Islander Captain Eddie Westfall and penalty-killing mate Lorne Henning shut out the vaunted Philadelphia power play; and, perhaps best of all, rookie Clark Gilles, 6'3", 220, scored a TKO over Flyer badman Dave Schultz, 6'1", 190 to win the NHL's heavyweight championship.
"Don't those Islanders realize that history doesn't repeat itself every two weeks?" said incredulous Flyer Defenseman Joe Watson as the teams headed back to Philadelphia for Tuesday's deciding game.
Buffalo's rude expulsion of Montreal by four games to two in their semifinal was hardly a fluke; in fact, the five-year-old Sabres consistently overpowered the Canadiens during the regular season (4-0-1), when the two teams generally disdained defense and staged wild shoot-outs resulting in such scores as 8-6, 7-6 and 6-4. However, not even General Manager Punch Imlach was wildly enthusiastic about his Sabres' prospects last Tuesday night as the series moved back to the "Aud" in Buffalo for the fifth game. The Sabres had won each of the first two games at home by the margin of a single goal, but in Montreal the Canadiens had demolished them 7-0 and 8-2. "I don't know how my kids will react to those games," said Imlach, scratching his bald head.
What really worried the Sabres was the sudden ineffectiveness of hockey's most destructive attack force, the French Connection line of Center Gilbert Perreault and Wingers Rene Robert and Richard Martin. After terrorizing the NHL for 131 goals this season, the French Connection had been held scoreless for 10 consecutive playoff periods by the Canadiens' new Maginot Line defense.
For the purists, the joy of the Stanley Cup playoffs is watching the game plans and countertactics designed by the opposing coaches. "Unfortunately, we don't get to coach too much during the regular schedule because teams meet only once every six weeks or so," said Montreal's Scotty Bowman. "In the playoffs, though, we play the same opponents for a couple of weeks straight, so we can plot against them—or at least try to."
Bowman made his inspired defensive move midway through Game One in Buffalo, after Martin, Robert and Perreault scored quick goals. He hastily composed an all-purpose checking line consisting of Jacques Lemaire, Bob Gainey and Jim Roberts, and ordered them to follow the French Connection all over the ice. Lemaire tagged behind Perreault, Gainey trailed Robert and Roberts did his Lamont Cranston act on Martin. Result: that 10-period shutout.
"It's up to Perreault's line to beat Lemaire's line, that's all there is to it," said Buffalo Coach Floyd Smith. "If the Connection can't do the job, then we're in trouble because they're our best. They're the best there is." Who are they anyway? "We are three Frenchmen who understand each other," says Perreault. Shy and reticent, the 24-year-old Perreault is the most spectacular one-on-one forward in hockey. However, he does have one major flaw for a center. "He doesn't know how to work give-and-go passes with Robert and Martin, so he wastes a lot of time," says an NHL coach. "The only way Perreault can get the puck across the blue line is by skating out himself." Consequently, Perreault's worst games come against teams that forecheck tenaciously. "Jacques Lemaire has done a great job against Perreault in this series," Bowman said, "and he hasn't been physical in the least, not with his body or his stick. Now I can see why Bobby Clarke gives Perreault so much trouble.
Robert, 26, is Buffalo's team clown, outspoken during times of triumph but sullen in moments of distress. For the most part, the latter aspect of his personality was on display in Pittsburgh three years ago when an on-ice altercation with then Coach Red Kelly forced his trade to Buffalo. Last season Robert's mood was black again; he scored only 21 goals for the Sabres in 1973-74 and was the rumored bait in trade talks for a goaltender. Now, after a 40-goal, 100-point season, Robert is outspoken once more, but he vehemently denies that he ever told a French journalist that the Canadiens were a bunch of "yellow deleteds."
Although most people call him "Rick," Martin, 23, prefers to be called Richard (as in Ree-shard) or Rico, and in four NHL seasons he has scored a record 185 goals. The only bachelor member of the Connection, he is normally close-mouthed once he departs the dressing room, and he tends to confront personal adversity—something like a two-game scoring drought—by sinking into a deep funk. This year he has grown a bushy mustache that gives him a sinister aspect; heretofore he wore a little-boy-lost look. For the last four months Martin, who faces surgery this summer, played with his right thumb locked in a cast, and he claims that this has hurt his shot. Tell that to Tony Esposito. Or Ed Giacomin.
Like Perreault and Robert, Martin had been too docile in the Sabre losses at Montreal. So, taking the ice for the fifth game, he spotted his shadow, Roberts, and began to spew forth some venomous verbiage. As play moved on he backed it up by knocking down Serge Savard and crashing Lemaire into the boards, all the while continuing his denture-to-denture chatter with Roberts.
"I'm going to put this stick right through your guts," Martin told Roberts during one exchange before a face-off.
Near the end of the first period at least one member of the French Connection regained the scoring touch, Perreault whipping a backhander past Montreal Goaltender Ken Dryden on a power play as Buffalo jumped to a 3-1 lead. The Canadiens came back to tie the score 3-3 on two gift goals, compliments of Buffalo's Muscle Beach defense tandem of Jim Schoenfeld and Jerry (King Kong) Korab, both of whom suddenly seemed to have become allergic to the puck. But Martin, still unable to break away from Roberts' shackles, was completely frustrated. He took a penalty for knocking down Gainey, then rubbed his glove in Roberts' face. To add to his troubles, Martin was caught up-ice early in the third period when Henri Richard broke away with the puck on a three-on-two and set up Roberts, of all people, for Montreal's go-ahead goal.
With Dryden playing brilliantly, the Canadiens protected their lead. And then it happened. Korab skated up the right side, along the boards, and was upended by Steve Shutt of the Canadiens. Penalty? Definitely. Lloyd Gilmour ignored the infraction, though, and play continued as the Buffalo crowd—the most boisterous in the league—howled and shrieked for the referee's throat. Seconds later Korab skated off with the puck again. This time Montreal rookie Doug Risebrough tried to poke it off Korab's stick, but instead he made contact with Korab's leg, prompting the Buffalo player to execute a perfect half-gainer. This time Gilmour's hand shot up. Penalty! "The crowd planted the seed," Bowman groused afterward. With Risebrough in the penalty box, Buffalo's Craig Ramsay beat Dryden to send the game into overtime.
After almost six minutes of sudden death, there was a face-off in the circle to Dryden's left. Smith, naturally, sent out the French Connection. Equally predictably, Bowman countered with Lemaire, Gainey and Roberts. Dryden shaded himself toward the middle of his crease, anticipating a quick screen shot from Robert, who would be the triggerman if Perreault could beat Lemaire on the draw. Perreault picked Lemaire clean, backhanded the puck to Robert, and by the time Dryden moved, the red light was on for a 5-4 Buffalo win—and Martin was making an obscene gesture to Roberts, right there in living color on coast-to-coast CBC television.
No matter. Roberts had reached Martin, which is all he ever wanted to do. "Roberts is doing a perfect job," said Smith. "He has frustrated Rico at every turn. Patience. Rico must be patient. When you're young, it's not easy." Martin shrugged. "Two years ago I'd have really been ticked off at Roberts," he said. "Now I'm just ticked off."
For Thursday night's game at the Forum the Canadiens went public, appealing to the crowd for extra support. "Et maintenant accueillons nos Canadiens" ("And now let's welcome our Canadiens"), the public address announcer shrieked as Montreal skated out. When Martin and Roberts lined up, Roberts' opening conversational gambit was to inform the Sabre winger, "You're a phony."
Still, it was Buffalo's game from the start. Craig Ramsay, penalty killer extraordinaire, working without his injured accomplice Don Luce, scored an early shorthanded goal for the Sabres when Dryden failed in an attempt to smother a loose puck in the corner and left his net unprotected.
Then, nine minutes into the period, Martin escaped from Roberts, stole the puck from Serge Savard and broke down-ice. Patient now, Martin busted off the left wing and, with the puck in the face-off drop circle, blasted a slap shot between Dryden's right leg and the post. Peter Mahovlich pulled the Canadiens to within a goal but Buffalo remained in control as the score grew to 3-1, then 4-1. And nobody who was there—not Believeau, not Toe Blake—will ever forget the humiliation that the Sabres showered on Les Canadiens in the second period. For the first 19 minutes and 54 seconds of that period, the Canadiens had only one shot—one—at Buffalo Goaltender Gerry Desjardins. Even that shot was questionable, the Sabres insisting it struck the post, not Desjardins' pads. "It was embarrassing," admitted Mahovlich.
For 20 minutes the Sabres executed Imlach's old Toronto-style defense to perfection, four men solidly stationed at the blue line, the fifth man harassing the puck carrier. Two flukish third-period Montreal goals narrowed the final score to 4-3, but they did not save the Canadiens from the crowd. "Someone should call the police department and ask them to send out a missing persons bulletin for 20 Montreal hockey players," mumbled one disgruntled fan. Martin and Roberts shook hands at the end, said there were no hard feelings, insisted that the words and gestures were spur-of-the-moment things not to be taken seriously and then skated in opposite directions.
"The best team won," said Montreal Defenseman Don Awrey. "Let's face it. We played Buffalo 11 times this year and won only twice. It's all there in black and white." This time, anyway, Les Canadiens Ne Sont Pas L√†, as the song doesn't go. Then again, neither are any of the other five members of the NHL Establishment as the Stanley Cup finals begin this week.