A kid in an orange-and-white Flyers T shirt jogged past a solitary figure leaning against a wall outside the Philadelphia dressing room at the Spectrum one night last week. "You'd better get working," the kid said to the man. "Ah, son, I sure don't know why, but I'm just doing no good in these playoffs," said Father John Casey, Philadelphia's team priest.
Last Sunday night, with Father Casey, Kate Smith and 17,077 Flyer fanatics looking on, the lordly Montreal Canadiens administered the last rites to the two-year Stanley Cup reign of the brash Flyers, beating them 5-3 to complete a stunning four-game sweep of the cup. "Somewhere down the line people will see that we won in four straight games—and that it was easy," said Montreal Goaltender Ken Dryden. "But they will not be more wrong. If you'll notice, we're drinking our champagne sitting down."
The Canadiens, who coursed through the playoffs by winning 12 of 13 games, defeated the Flyers by a single goal in each of their first three games. Unwilling to give up without a fight, Philadelphia stormed to a quick 1-0 lead Sunday when Reggie Leach scored his 19th goal of the playoffs—and record 80th of the season—41 seconds after Miss Smith had finished singing her lucky God Bless America. But Montreal gained a 3-3 tie on three power-play goals, and then with slightly less than six minutes left in the game, the Canadiens struck for two goals within 58 seconds—and victory.
Peter Mahovlich set up Guy Lafleur for the cup winner at 14:18, and Lafleur reciprocated by feeding Mahovlich for the clincher at 15:16. On Lafleur's goal, he slapped at a wobbly Mahovlich pass, the puck grazing Flyer Defenseman Jimmy Watson and caroming past Goaltender Wayne Stephenson. Mahovlich applied the coup de gr√¢ce by wheeling around a Philadelphia defenseman and flipping a backhander between Stephenson's legs.
May 23, 1976
Despite the closeness of the scores, the swift-skating Canadiens shocked the former Broad St. Bullies by beating them at their own game of intimidation. Defenseman Larry Robinson rattled Philadelphia bodies off the boards, onto the ice and even into the benches; the only good check from a Flyer was a jolting high-stick by Bill Barber that missed Yvan Cournoyer's head and caught Flyer Defenseman Jack McIlhargey flush on the face, opening a 14-stitch gash. Robinson slammed Gary Dornhoefer so hard into the boards in one game that play had to be suspended so workmen could nail some slats back into place.
Usually robust and pugnacious in the corners, Philadelphia musclemen Dave Schultz, Don Saleski and Bob Kelly were bounced around and outwitted by a horde of strong Canadiens led by checking specialist Bob Gainey and a Venezuelan-born rookie named Rick Chartraw, who had the temerity to rub his gloves in Schultz' face right there in the unfriendly Spectrum. When Flyer Coach Fred Shero hastily composed a Muscle Beach line with Schultz and Kelly on the wings in an attempt to slow down the Canadiens in Game 3, Montreal Coach Scotty Bowman promptly countered by sending out his own Muscle Line with Chartraw and Pierre Bouchard, both of whom normally play defense, stationed opposite Schultz and Kelly. Late in that game Chartraw and Bouchard collaborated on Montreal's winning goal in the 3-2 victory; Chartraw had Schultz tied up in front of Stephenson, and Bouchard, who had scored only one goal all season, fired a 45-foot wrist shot between their entangled legs and past the completely screened Stephenson.
What hurt Philadelphia most of all, however, was Bowman's masterful strategy for containing Bobby Clarke, the usually indomitable captain of the Flyers. Clarke had 30 goals and 89 assists this year while centering for Leach (61 goals) and Barber (50 goals) on the most productive line in NHL history. "You never really stop someone like Clarke because he can beat you so many ways," Bowman said. "We just set out to wear him down. And by controlling Clarke, we naturally figured that we would be able to keep his linemates in pretty good check. You're probably never going to keep a Leach and a Barber from scoring goals, but you just don't want them to pop five past you in one game, like Leach did against Boston."
Bowman assigned the young center firm of Doug and Doug—Jarvis and Risebrough—to shadow Clarke at all times. To ease their task and also keep their legs fresh, Bowman double-shifted them against Clarke each time he was on the ice. Clarke averaged minute-long shifts against the Canadiens, so Jarvis, 21, and Risebrough, 22, averaged about 30-second shifts against Clarke, who played with an injured left knee that may need surgery this summer. A faceoff specialist, Jarvis dominated Clarke on the draws, while the hyperaggressive Risebrough, a hard hat who led the Canadiens with 180 penalty minutes this year, repeatedly outmuscled the weary Clarke in jousts for loose pucks. Together, Jarvis and Risebrough held Clarke without a goal and wore him to a frazzle; in fact, the gaunt Clarke was down to 170 pounds Sunday night, some 15 pounds below his normal playing weight.
For his part, Shero was unable to find a countermeasure for Bowman's tactics against Clarke, which, incidentally, resembled the stratagems Shero employed against Boston's Phil Esposito when the Flyers won the cup in 1974 and against Buffalo's Gilbert Perreault when they won again in 1975. "All I can do is give Clarke shorter shifts," Shero said, "but when I do that I'm always putting a player on the ice who isn't as good as Clarke—and why do that at this time?"
As Bowman correctly figured, by controlling Clarke's movements the Canadiens also effectively slowed down the production of Leach and Barber. Leach scored four goals against Dryden, but Barber was thoroughly contained by old hand Jimmy Roberts and, like Clarke, did not score a goal. "Leach can score while you blink," said Gainey, the NHL's best defensive wing. "He's hard to cover because once he touches the puck he shoots it on the net."
Discussing Gainey, Roberts and friends, Philadelphia Wing Dornhoefer said, "They've checked us so closely that you can tell what brand of deodorant they're using." Or as Defenseman Joe Watson said, "All those Montreal guys are so big, so tall, that when they reach out to check with their sticks, it looks as though they can reach all the way across the rink." Said another disgusted Flyer, "I'd like to take one stride, just one stride, without some Canadien fighting me for the puck. Why, we haven't had enough shots at Dryden to make him work up a sweat." For example, during the final two periods of Game 3, Montreal limited Philadelphia to a mere 13 shots at Dryden in goal, and only one could have been called a testing drive.
It was strange to hear people talking about the "checking" tactics of the Montreal Canadiens. In the old days, when Howie Morenz and Rocket Richard and Boom-Boom Geoffrion and Jean Beliveau and even the young Yvan Cournoyer were cavorting about the ice at emergency velocity, the Canadiens dazzled the opposition with breakneck head-manning maneuvers and did their checking mainly at the bank.
"The game changed," Bowman said, "and we did not adjust quickly enough. Sure, our wide-open style carried us well during the regular season the past few years. Once the playoffs began, though, the other teams stopped our attack with good checking, but unfortunately we couldn't stop their attacks." So the Canadiens went to the sidelines the last two springs and watched Philadelphia take the Stanley Cup with its disciplined, systematic style of play.
Mindful of Philadelphia's success with a defensive approach, Bowman convinced the Canadiens last fall that they had to tighten up their act—or else. True, Lafleur did win the scoring championship. However, the Montreal defensemen forgot about rinklong rushes and protected Dryden so well that he had the best goals-against average in the league, and such non-goal scorers as Gainey, Roberts and Jarvis earned the kind of acclaim generally reserved for high scorers such as Lafleur and Mahovlich. Along the way, too, the Canadiens abandoned their passive posture of the recent past and discovered the real meaning of body checking.
Best of all, they also located a John Ferguson-style gendarme in the 6'3", 205-pound Robinson, the mustachioed defenseman who was a skating S.W.A.T. squad against the Flyers by showing them where the buck—and the puck—stopped. Robinson introduced himself to the Broad St. Bullies back in 1974 when he registered a TKO over Schultz. "I was in the dressing room getting stitched up when a big fight started," Robinson said. "I laced up my skates, went back out and saw that Schultz was battling Guy Lafleur. I didn't think that was a fair matchup, so I stepped in."
Robinson relished his role as Montreal's designated hitter. "I never have trouble getting up for games against Philadelphia," he said. "When you play the Flyers, there are more opportunities to hit people." However, he dismissed all talk about being the new policeman. "Aw, heck," he said, "any player would do it for another guy on his team. I'm not doing anything special. When a teammate looks as though he might be in trouble, it's automatic that you go help him." Robinson laughed. "If I had hit all year like I've been hitting against the Flyers," he said, "I'd be 4'8" and weigh 150 pounds."
Guzzling bubbly from the cup and singing a mock version of God Bless America in the raucous Montreal dressing room late Sunday night, Robinson admitted that he was "numb" from the excitement. Down the hall, Father Casey was leaning against the wall, and Clarke was praising the Canadiens. "They just outnumbered us," he said. "They're the best hockey team I've ever seen."