The National Hockey League's six-month, 80-game regular season is only five weeks and 15 games old but already the death of a Canadien has been reported in Montreal. One recent Saturday a French radio station announced that Defenseman Guy Lapointe, sidelined at the time with a groin injury, had passed away. This news naturally was Topic A from the bowels of the Forum to the summit of Mount Royal. Just when people were wondering where they should send the flowers, Lapointe arrived in the Canadiens' dressing room at the Forum and was briefed. "I am very pleased to deny that I am dead," he said.
Such is life in Montreal when Les Habitants aren't winning every game by a 7-1 score. In fact, denying rumors of terminal disease has been the most interesting part of the season so far for Montreal, Philadelphia and the New York Islanders, rated the NHL's three best teams in preseason polls. Along Montreal's rue Ste. Catherine, Parti Québécois had been forgotten for the moment. The Canadiens, who lost only one game at the Forum all last season, suddenly had lost three home games within 10 days and had won only one of their previous five. In New York the Islanders seemed ready for pregame meetings on Bob Newhart's couch. Their inconsistent play, characterized mainly by an obvious lack of interest, had players criticizing management, players sniping at players and Coach Al Arbour calling his athletes "a bunch of babies." And in Philadelphia, the Flyers led the Islanders by two points in their Patrick Division battle but had lost the only three games they had played against strong teams, including their first home-ice loss to Buffalo since the Sabres joined the NHL eight years ago.
Last week the Canadiens and the Flyers took turns visiting the Islanders as all three teams underwent their prescribed monthly checkups. "Championships aren't decided in November," said Philadelphia Coach Fred Shero, "but matchups like these show you where you stand." Montreal Coach Scotty Bowman said, "We've been playing terribly, and if we were facing a bunch of games against weak teams we'd probably continue to play terribly. But we play the Islanders, then get Toronto at home, and that's exactly what we need."
As Bowman talked, Montreal was still thawing out from the shock of Monday night's loss to the Minnesota North Stars at the Forum. After that game Canadien Goaltender Ken Dryden said that when he went to the parking lot for his car the attendant greeted him not with a nod or a hello but with a grumbling "Minnesota 5, Canadiens 3."
"People have suggested that we are bored, knowing we will finish first and be in the Stanley Cup playoffs," said Dryden. "But being bored is practically impossible in Montreal. Not with the fans, the media, and the lectures we get in practice."
With Lapointe watching in street clothes and their two other All-Star defensemen, Larry Robinson and Serge Savard, in mild slumps, the Canadiens suddenly were not providing Goaltenders Dryden and Bunny Larocque with steady protection. Also, Dryden and Larocque, who had been sharing the goaltending load, both seemed to be allowing one easy goal a game, which Bowman attributed to a lack of sharpness.
"Dryden has always needed a lot of work to keep his edge," Bowman said, "and he's not getting it under this system. So, starting with the Islanders' game, I'm going back to what we've always done around here. Dryden's the No. 1 goalie, and he'll play most of the games. Larocque's a good goalie, too good to be a backup, but we've won four Stanley Cups in the 5½ years that Dryden has been our No. 1 goalie." Bowman paused. "Our problems aren't that serious," he said. "We're a team that relies on one scoring line—Guy Lafleur, Steve Shutt and Jacques Lemaire—and three others that work. Some of the workers have been a little frustrated, and they've been trying to do things they really can't."
Midway through the first period Thursday night Montreal rookie Pierre Mondou outmuscled the Islanders' Jude Drouin on a face-off and passed the puck to Yvon Lambert, who outmuscled Jean Potvin at the goalmouth and rerouted the puck past Goaltender Glenn Resch. Apr√®s l√†, le deluge. As the Islanders stopped and watched, Lafleur scored one spectacular goal and set up two others for Shutt, then Bob Gainey roared past Drouin for a shorthanded goal to complete the 5-1 rout. In the dressing room Shutt stood on a chair and led a brief chorus of Happy Days Are Here Again. Maybe for Montreal, but probably not for the rest of the NHL. Back at the Forum on Saturday night, Lafleur scored his second hat trick of the season and Dryden was spectacular in goal as the Canadiens ravaged Toronto 5-0.
While the rout of the Islanders revived the Canadiens, it left the Islanders in chaos. This is a team that has never finished first in its division and never reached the Stanley Cup finals, and suddenly a couple of players are quoted as saying the Islanders lack "motivation." "It makes you wonder, doesn't it?" snapped Arbour. The coach himself was openly second-guessed by penalty-killing specialist Lorne Henning after he kept Henning out of the lineup for the Montreal game. Several Islanders said that an incident in the previous Sunday's 5-3 loss at Boston, when one of the Bruins' few pacifists, Finnish Forward Matti Hagman, blind-sided 6'3", 215-pound New York Captain Clark Gillies into the boards and escaped without reprisal, was the symbol of their season. "A lot of us have forgotten that it's hitting and hard work that have got us where we are," said Defenseman Gerry Hart. One other problem: Defenseman Denis Potvin had not been a commanding figure in any game this season, and the question on Long Island was, "When will Denis show up?"
In addition, the defense-oriented Islanders were breaking in three offense-oriented rookies—Right Wing Mike Bossy, Center Mike Kaszycki, and Swedish Defenseman Stefan Persson—and the growing pains were evident even though Bossy scored their only goal against Montreal and had nine for his first 15 games in the NHL. In fact, if not for the outstanding work of Resch and Billy Smith in goal and the emergence of 21-year-old Center Bryan Trottier as one of the NHL's genuine stars, the Islanders could have been floundering somewhere south of Atlanta.
When the Flyers arrived for Saturday night's game, they weren't bubbling with joy either, having just lost to Buffalo 3-2 at the Spectrum. "We've talked a lot about the fact that we haven't beaten one of the top clubs yet," said Defenseman Joe Watson. "And we know all about our disgraceful performance in the playoffs last year when Boston beat us four straight. So this game with the Islanders really means a lot. We've got to find out a few things about ourselves."
Predictably, bodies started flying the instant Referee Bruce Hood dropped the puck. The Islanders dominated the first two periods and led the Flyers 2-0. The New York forwards pounded away at the Philadelphians at every chance, and Hart—one of the smallest skaters on the ice—continually chopped down Flyers twice his size. Potvin stopped trying to play like the second Bobby Orr and, for a change, played like the first Denis Potvin, body-checking viciously and passing the puck out of his zone, not skating with it Orr style. Bossy fed Trottier for a first-period power-play goal, only the fourth such score for New York in 39 opportunities, and Billy Harris whizzed a 45-footer past Bernie Parent in the second period.
In the third period, though, the Islanders reverted to their early-season form. They forgot to check, forgot to hit. The Flyers struck quickly, converting a poor New York clearing pass into one goal and tying the score at 2-2 when Dailey blasted a 50-footer through Smith's pads. Led by Dailey, the Flyers befuddled the Islanders in the final period. Smith's artistry repeatedly saved New York, and as the clock ticked away it was obvious that Arbour was happy to escape with the 2-2 tie. In fact, rather than go for broke with the high-scoring Trottier-Bossy-Gillies line when there was a face-off in Philadelphia's end in the final minute, Arbour opted for a safe checking line.
When the game was over, Hart had a footlong slash across his neck, courtesy of Clarke's stick. Under Clarke's left eye was a long mark, courtesy of a chop by Smith that had emptied both benches at the end of the second period. "I know it was only a tie but I really think we've turned ourselves around and will play the way we have to," said Hart. Countered Clarke, "We proved we could go on the road and come back against a good team."
So, as the checkup ended, the Canadiens were in perfect health, the Flyers were recovering and the Islanders were still in sick bay—and Guy Lapointe was alive and well in Montreal.