A funny thing happened to the Montreal Canadiens last Saturday night in the Forum. They lost. Just when it was starting to look as though the Canadiens might never again lose anything, even their tempers, the New York Rangers beat them 6-3. That snapped Montreal's record unbeaten string at 28 games. However, the Canadiens' streak, which demolished the previous NHL record of 23, was probably no more remarkable than the fact that it was New York, of all teams, that ended it.
The Rangers are mired in the Patrick Division cellar, had not won in the Forum in six years and—no doubt figuring they had nothing to lose—picked the Montreal game to unveil 26-year-old Swedish import Hardy Astrom, who had never played in an NHL game, as their starting goaltender. Astrom had been called up from the New Haven Night-hawks 24 hours earlier, and Ranger Coach Jean-Guy Talbot decided to start him because "when you go to Montreal you'll try anything." That hardly sounded like a ringing vote of confidence but Astrom performed solidly in the nets, and the Rangers checked with unaccustomed fervor. Astrom took the win calmly, as befits a fellow who, as goaltender for the Swedish national team, had beaten the Czechs in Prague and the Russians in Moscow. "I know the Forum is special," he shrugged, "but to me it would have been no different if we were playing in Atlanta."
Before the game against the Rangers, one had to go back 10 weeks—to successive road losses to Minnesota (3-2) on Dec. 14 and to Pittsburgh (5-3) on Dec. 17—to find the last times the Canadiens had been defeated. Although Coach Scotty Bowman's club had breezed to an NHL best-ever 60-8-12 record last year and had begun this season as everybody's favorite to win a third straight Stanley Cup, few could have foreseen any kind of victory binge following those losses. Playing without their accustomed cohesion, the Canadiens had only a 19-7-4 record at the time, hardly up to their lofty standards. After all, they had lost only eight of 80 games during the 1976-77 season—and already they had dropped seven of 30. So what did they do but go on their record-breaking 23-0-5 tear.
The Canadiens enjoyed the streak while it lasted and talked about keeping it going as long as possible—"so no other team will ever break our record," as Guy Lafleur said. When friends coaxed Defenseman Pierre Bouchard into Le Shack, a St. Catherine Street striptease parlor, he noted, observing one of the dancers, "She's just like the Canadiens. She's streaking, too."
In the course of their stunning streak, the Canadiens played every NHL rival except Minnesota at least once. And they pulled it off despite a staggering succession of ailments. All-Star Defenseman Guy Lapointe missed 23 of the 28 games, checking specialist Bob Gainey was lost for nine, and injuries and illnesses briefly sidelined Lafleur, Captain Yvan Cournoyer and Center Pierre Larouche. But flaunting Montreal's enviable depth, Bowman kept replacing the lame and halt with fresh troops.
Injury and illness were not the only things that kept Bowman scheming. As if to put down all those people who kid that the Canadiens are so powerful they don't need a coach, he shuffled lineups the way coaches usually do when they go 28 games without a victory. Then, for last week's game against Buffalo, all the Canadiens were healthy for a change, forcing Bowman to sit out three players. One player nominated for a night off was Forward Mario Tremblay, who had scored four goals and eight assists in the previous seven games. Bowman also played a hunch and started backup Goal-tender Bunny Larocque instead of his best man, Ken Dryden. And he shunted Steve Shutt, who led the NHL last season with 60 goals, off to a fourth line.
Shutt had 31 goals so far this season, and while this seemed a respectable enough total, it lagged far behind last year's pace. This can get a fellow in trouble in talent-rich Montreal. Bowman replaced Shutt on the top line with Rejean Houle, a speedy little forward who labors under the nickname of Peanut. A defensive specialist, Houle had improved his stock over the previous 11 games by scoring at a goal-a-game clip.
Larocque surrendered two easy Buffalo goals, so Bowman promptly brought in Dryden, who shut out the Sabres the rest of the way. Montreal won 4-2, with Jacques Lemaire scoring two goals and Larry Robinson and Houle the others. As for Shutt, he brooded for 72 hours and then exploded for four goals in a 5-1 romp over Cleveland, with Lafleur assisting on each. Ah, yes, Lafleur. In quest of his third straight NHL scoring title, the star right wing was skating like the wind and picking up fistfuls of assists. Amassing 18 points in one seven-game stretch, he had 97 for the season and was only three points behind scoring leader Bryan Trottier of the Islanders.
With so much talent in Montreal uniforms, Shutt hinted after his four-goal outburst against Cleveland that the Canadiens' stiffest competition may come not from NHL rivals but from one another. "People ask whether we get bored with winning," he said. "Hell, we're too busy worrying about our jobs."
Which may account for the Canadiens' "hunger" and "desire," words that rivals bandy about when discussing Montreal. Those qualities were evident, certainly, when the Canadiens played Philadelphia in the Spectrum on Dec. 18, their next outing after the losses at Minnesota and Pittsburgh. The Flyers were the hottest club in hockey at the time and had four points more than slumping Montreal in the overall standings. Worse, Lafleur, Lapointe, Cournoyer and Larouche were sidelined with a variety of ailments. But, checking ferociously and getting inspired goaltending from Dryden, the Canadiens won 2-0. The Flyers have not been the same since, winning just 13 of their last 30 games.
For Montreal, the win in Philly was game No. 1 in the streak. In Toronto three days later Lapointe returned to action—he had been kept out by a groin pull—just long enough to catch a puck in the face, resulting in an injury that required minor eye surgery and sidelined him for two months. But the Canadiens beat the Maple Leafs 3-2 on a goal by Robinson with 48 seconds to go. That was No. 2. Then came six more wins and a rematch with the Flyers at the Forum. In that one, Montreal had to settle for a 3-3 tie when Philadelphia's Paul Holmgren scored on Dryden with one second to go. That tough break, though, was offset by more favorable ones. Like in No. 19, for example, when Montreal salvaged a 4-4 tie in Vancouver on goals by Lemaire and Houle with less than five minutes left.
On Feb. 12, the Canadiens beat the Rangers 5-3 at Madison Square Garden to stretch their unbeaten string to 23, equaling the record set by Boston in 1940-41 and tied by Philadelphia in 1975-76. When the Canadiens went for No. 24 in St. Louis three days later, Lapointe was back in uniform—and apprehensive. "I was worried about how my eye would be," he says. "I was also worried about how I'd feel if the streak ended the night I got back." With Lapointe playing only in spots, the Canadiens wiped out the Blues 6-2. Champagne flowed in Montreal's dressing room. The Canadiens next walloped Washington 8-2 for No. 25, in their 16th and last road game of the streak.
Returning to the Forum for an extended home stand—and scoring seven third-period goals—Montreal whipped Colorado 9-4 for No. 26 before getting Nos. 27 and 28 over Buffalo and Cleveland. As the Canadiens rolled along, the awesomeness of their attack was underscored by the relatively minor role played by newcomer Larouche. In Pittsburgh, he had performed scoring heroics—he had 53 goals as a 20-year-old two years ago—but was an enfant terrible who tended to sulk and skip practice. That was before he was traded to the Canadiens last November for Peter Mahovlich and rookie Peter Lee.
In Montreal, Larouche has done nothing naughtier than sneak an occasional cigarette while watching his favorite TV program, The Gong Show, on the locker-room TV. He has scored a modest 18 goals this season—12 of them with the Canadiens—and has received a lot of friendly reminders from Lafleur to devote himself more diligently to defense.
"I get on Pierre's back a lot," admits Lafleur. "I tell him Montreal is not Pittsburgh. Here we play two-way hockey."
Montreal players like to grumble about Bowman's constant shuffling of personnel, but the coach pays little heed. "The easiest thing a coach can do is avoid making changes, but I'm not interested in doing what's easiest," Bowman says. "We've got 20 players and 17 uniforms and when everybody's healthy, three guys have to sit out. It's a problem, but it's the kind of problem you like to have."
Bowman is capable of counting his blessings—and these, of course, are considerable. For one thing, his club's 28-game unbeaten streak is in the record book, and even with five ties it deserves comparison with the Los Angeles Lakers' NBA-record 33 straight wins in 1971-72; in a low-scoring sport in which a lucky bounce of the puck can cost you a game, merely avoiding defeat 28 times running is achievement enough. For another thing, the Canadiens are so far ahead of the runner-up Los Angeles Kings that they could clinch the Norris Division some time this week, with 18-odd games to play.
Still, as Hardy Astrom and the Rangers proved Saturday night, danger lurks at every turn. On some nights, even the first shall be last. That's what makes a hockey match.