Name your game, baby, and the Montreal Canadiens will beat you. If you want to play hockey on the pond, the Canadiens will outskate you. If you want to play it on the docks, the Canadiens will outslug you. And if all you want to do is sit at home and play Blue Line Hockey, General Manager Sam Pollock and Coach Scotty Bowman will show up in your living room with loaded dice. "Any way the other team wants to play the game, we can play that way, too," says Montreal Defenseman Serge Savard.
The Boston Bruins certainly learned this the hard way last week during the Stanley Cup finals. Outskated 7-3 in Game One, the Bruins were outslugged 3-0 in Game Two Tuesday night at the Forum. Vowing revenge for the manhandlings suffered by his teammates, Bruin roughneck John Wensink predicted before Game Three that Montreal star "Guy Lafleur won't get out of Boston Garden alive." Blithely skating away from Boston checkers, particularly the overmatched Wensink, Lafleur not only escaped with his life Thursday night, but he also scored two goals and neatly set up the other two in Montreal's 4-2 victory. "Guy really played scared, eh?" said linemate Steve Shutt.
Trailing the series three games to none, the Bruins were reeling now, and Lafleur personally applied the coup de gr√¢ce Saturday night in Boston. Early in the second period Lafleur fed linemate Jacques Lemaire for the goal that tied the score at one, and it remained that way through the end of the regulation 60 minutes as both teams forgot about brawling and played excellent pure hockey.
But Lafleur has plans for a holiday on the French Riviera, and once the sudden death began it was obvious that he did not want the Bruins to delay the start of his vacation. The Canadiens pinned the Bruins deep in their own end, and suddenly there was Lafleur skating down a wobbling puck along the end boards behind Boston Goaltender Gerry Cheevers.
May 22, 1977
In less time than it takes a Frenchman to say Les Canadiens Sont L√†, Lafleur spotted the ubiquitous Lemaire alone at the corner of the goal crease, flattened the rolling puck by covering it with the blade of his stick, then adroitly slid it to the uncovered Lemaire. Flick! The puck was past Cheevers and into the net, and the Canadiens had a four-game sweep of the cup finals. Pass the champagne, s'il vous pla√Æt.
"Any excuses we could come up with would be bull," said Boston Captain Wayne Cashman. "It all came down to one thing. The Canadiens are so bleeping good!"
But just how good are these Canadiens? Starting with the training-camp exhibitions, they played 104 games in eight months and lost only 10. Over one 14-week period they lost only one of 41 games. They finished the 80-game regular schedule with an NHL record of 60 victories, a record of only eight defeats and a record of 132 points. In 94 regular season and playoff games they outscored the opposition 440 goals to 194. They had the leading goal scorer (Shutt), the leading point maker (Lafleur) and the best goaltending tandem (Ken Dryden and Bunny Larocque). They have swept the last two finals, and their two-year playoff record is a remarkable 24-3—they lost only to the New York Islanders, twice this season and once a year ago. But are these Canadiens better than any of the 1956 through 1960 Montreal teams that won five straight Stanley Cups?
"It's impossible to rate teams from different eras because you're talking about the old NHL with six teams and the new NHL with 18 teams," says Tom Johnson, who played defense for the 1956-60 Montreal clubs and now is the Bruins' assistant general manager. "However, this Canadien team has no center as good as Jean Beliveau, no winger as good as Maurice Richard, no one defenseman as good as Doug Harvey, no one goaltender as good as Jacques Plante. But this Canadien team has other things that we didn't have, like great depth and balance. It has every element a team needs, and it's the hardest-working, best-checking great team I've ever seen."
Bowman agrees with at least the last part of Johnson's assessment. "We're a unique blend of superstars and workers," he says. "If you took the 18 most talented players in the NHL and put them on the same team, they could not accomplish what we accomplished as a team this year."
The Canadiens demonstrated throughout the Boston series that they indeed possess marvelous and diversified talents. They did not need to resort to highlight films to get this message across to the Bruins either, just half a dozen picture postcards with italicized inscriptions:
•Boston's Terry O'Reilly crashing into the boards while his target, Montreal Winger Bob Gainey, speeds on, one step ahead of trouble. "We just never could catch them!" said O'Reilly.
•Montreal's Doug Riseborough, a third-line center, standing alone in front of Cheevers and scoring the clinching second goal in Game Two. "Someone said this was going to be a series of Rolls-Royces against Jeeps," said Boston Coach Don Cherry, "but twice now we've been beaten by their Jeeps."
•Montreal Defensemen Larry Robinson and Savard and Guy Lapointe standing menacingly in front of Dryden, their sticks reaching from one side of the rink to the other. "Our game is to muck around the net and hack at rebounds," said Cashman, "but with those big defensemen, we never got close."
•Montreal's Gainey, the best defensive forward in hockey, relentlessly back-checking Boston Wing Bobby Schmautz and deflecting Schmautz' shot out of the rink. "They're the best-checking team in history," said Schmautz, "and Gainey's the key to it all."
•Bowman, obviously sensing the impending fisticuffs, sending his SWAT bunch onto the ice for the final moments of Game Two: Robinson (6'3", 210 pounds) and Bill Nyrop (6'2", 209) on defense, with Pierre Bouchard (6'2", 202), Rick Chartraw (6'2", 210) and Yvon Lambert (6'1", 195) as a makeshift forward line. "People used to say, 'Hit the Canadiens and you'll beat them,' " Bouchard said, "but now we're the biggest team in hockey."
•Lafleur circling, spinning and firing a backhander past Cheevers, making a mockery of the Boston Garden banner that read: JOHN WENSINK EATS FROGS. "Guy Lafleur is the best in the world," said Shutt.
Maybe he is, but until the series moved to Boston, Lafleur played only a minor supporting role in the Canadiens' two victories at the Forum. In fact, the Boston checkers so hounded Lafleur that he was unable to unleash a single shot on Cheevers in either game, although he did assist on three of Montreal's 10 goals.
Having lost the opening game, the Bruins were desperate for a win in Game Two, and for 25 minutes they totally dominated the Canadiens, outshooting them 11-3 and, over one stretch, not allowing Montreal a shot at Cheevers for 22 minutes. "We played as well as we could play," Cherry said. But it was not well enough. Robinson, Savard and Lapointe deflected shots, cleared rebounds and removed cruising Bruins with solid body checks. "They're the key," Cherry said. "They could make Washington a contender." Waterbug Center Doug Jarvis pestered Boston Center Jean Ratelle with his eyeball-to-eyeball checking, and embarrassed Ratelle on faceoffs almost as badly as Ratelle had embarrassed Philadelphia's Bobby Clarke in the semifinals. For all their early domination in this game, the Bruins had few good chances at Dryden, and they failed to score. Then the opportunistic Canadiens struck for two goals in five minutes midway through the second period and took control of the game.
Unfortunately, Referee Ron Wicks never had any control of the proceedings, and in the end the game got out of hand. But the muscular Canadiens handled that, too. Lafleur and Boston Defenseman Mike Milbury had feuded all night. In the first period Milbury's stick accidentally caught Lafleur in the back of the head, prompting cries of outrage from the Montreal crowd, which considers Lafleur a god and reacts with loud vocal protests if he is even touched by an opponent. In the second period Lafleur swung his stick at Milbury after being held by him. In the third period, Lafleur, skating against Milbury one-on-one, fired a shot that hit Milbury on the hip. Cheevers charged out of his net and skated at Lafleur, contending that Lafleur had intentionally shot the puck at Milbury. "You're too good for that sort of thing," Cheevers screamed at Lafleur.
Milbury instantly became a marked man for Lafleur's bodyguards. In the closing moments Bouchard went far out of his way to charge the unsuspecting Milbury and knock him down, and a brawl erupted. For his part in the melee, Milbury was given a game-misconduct penalty with just 13 seconds to play, and because it was his second such penalty of the playoffs, he would have to sit out Game Three with a suspension.
If the Bruins thought they could intimidate Montreal with physical violence, the Canadiens put the notion to rest by handcuffing most of the Boston brawlers during the fracas. Boston emerged with only one winner: 5'8", 175-pound rookie Stan Jonathan, who kept the brawny Robinson in a headlock for several minutes. "It was silly of them to think they could intimidate us," said Savard. Nevertheless, it was then that Wensink boasted, "Lafleur won't get out of Boston Garden alive," adding, "I'll cut the Canadiens' ears off."
Lafleur didn't let such talk bother him. "I was a little concerned about all those threats," he said, "but I wasn't really worried." He scored the first goal and helped set up the next two as Montreal erupted for three power-play scores and a 3-0 lead after the first period in Game Three, then scored the fourth goal himself. And Wensink? When the Boston crowd chanted for Wensink in the second period, the Montreal bench broke up in laughter. When Wensink did take to the ice, Lafleur took the puck away from him the first two times he touched it.
Lafleur's play that night, and his subsequent performance in the final game, left even the vanquished Bruins singing his praise. "I don't know how to describe this guy except to say he reminds me of a guy we used to have—Bobby Orr," said Cashman. "He's the class of hockey, the best player in the world, and with guys like him—like Bobby—when things are tough, they just take it in stride and turn it on. He showed all of us what he's made of. I'm disappointed he was able to do it against us, but I think of all the teams that tried to stop Bobby when the pressure was high, and I've got to say to myself, 'What the hell, the guy's the greatest there is, so what are we supposed to do about it?' "