The word is out on Gilbert Perreault. He is a marked man. Every time the Buffalo Sabres' center ventures onto the ice, they're out there waiting. To keep the explosive Perreault contained, rival centers do awful things: they bump him, they beat a tattoo on his body with their sticks and they chase him everywhere but into the Sabre locker room. By means of these dogged attentions, opponents sometimes prevent Perreault from scoring. Now and then they even sneak in a goal themselves. The only thing that nobody realistically expects is that Perreault can be outskated on the open ice.
One of the few who tries is Philadelphia Flyer Center Rick MacLeish, the man detailed to watch Perreault when the Sabres and Flyers met last week in the Stanley Cup quarterfinals. MacLeish is a speed merchant, too, and the challenge he issued as the best-of-seven series opened was clear enough. "I'm going to play my game, and Perreault will play his," MacLeish said. "I feel I can skate with him." MacLeish then skated with Perreault so well that their duel became the focal point of the series. And in the process MacLeish became a marked man every time he went onto the ice.
The rivalry between Perreault and MacLeish goes back to 1970, when both players broke into the NHL. That was the year the Sabres were born, and the expansion club promptly made Perreault its first overall pick in the draft. The Sabres added other strong skaters: Rene Robert and Rick Martin joined Perreault to form the now-celebrated French Connection line. With speed as their trademark, the Sabres became a solid club, but it was only this season, thanks to the inspired play of rookie Don Edwards, that they finally solved their chronic goaltending problem. That raised hopes that they might challenge for the Stanley Cup, a notion that persisted, even though the team finished runner-up to Boston in the Adams Division and then played hot and cold while beating the New York Rangers in a Stanley Cup preliminary series.
If the Sabres really expected to go much further in the playoffs, they obviously needed big things from Perreault, their leading scorer (41 goals) and playmaker. Nobody realized this better than Perreault himself. He is remarkably shy for a star of eight years' standing, but he is scarcely lacking in confidence. "The team counts on me to control the puck and make the big play," he says, "and that's what I do best."
What MacLeish does best, meanwhile, is thrive under playoff pressure. He went fourth overall in the 70 draft, and the team that picked him, the Boston Bruins, traded him the next year to Philadelphia, where he has been overshadowed by do-everything Center Bobby Clarke. MacLeish deserves better. Philadelphia is a hitting rather than a skating club, and from the very start MacLeish was one of the few Flyers who could actually fly. He scored 50 goals in 1972-73 and excelled as the Flyers won the Stanley Cup the next two seasons. Establishing himself as a clutch player, he was the leading scorer in the playoffs both years.
This season, while the Flyers were being supplanted by the New York Islanders as champions of the Patrick Division, MacLeish slumped to a modest 31 goals. Blocking a shot last month against the Los Angeles Kings, he was slashed across the throat by one of Marcel Dionne's skates, a wound that required 80 stitches. After missing just four regular-season games, MacLeish came back full tilt as the Flyers whipped the Colorado Rockies in a preliminary series. He dismissed his injury with grisly humor. "I took a puff on a cigarette," he said, "and smoke came out my neck."
The decision to pit MacLeish against Perreault was made by Flyer Coach Fred Shero, a master at the critical business of matching lines. The home-team coach is always allowed to make the last line change, and since the first two games were in the Spectrum, Shero was calling the shots. Just as important as his decision to use MacLeish against Perreault was his thinking about how to use him. "Shadowing a player like Perreault used to be the thing to do, but I'd like to get away from it," Shero said. "If you shadow, it disrupts your own pattern."
Instead of having his Flyers shadow Perreault, Shero decreed that they would put "obstacles in his course" to prevent him from building up speed. First, the Flyers would forecheck to keep Perreault bottled up in his own end. Then, if he did get up ice, MacLeish would get in front of him and harass him a little. If Perrault got past MacLeish, well, other Flyers would bother him.
In the first game the Flyers followed the boss' plan perfectly. Clarke, Bill Barber and a lot of other Flyers swarmed on Buffalo's defensemen, repeatedly forcing them to surrender the puck. When the Sabres penetrated the Flyer zone, they seldom came up with rebounds. Kept off balance by MacLeish and company, Perreault did manage one nice breakaway, racing to the Philadelphia net for what looked like a sure goal. But Goalie Bernie Parent lunged and smothered the shot with his glove hand.
For his part, MacLeish had no trouble eluding Perreault. Circling at mid-ice like an airliner in a holding pattern, he swooped in at opportune moments for pinpoint landings on the Sabre net. He scored twice against Edwards and the Flyers won easily, 4-1.
MacLeish fared better still in the second game, getting a goal and two assists in a 3-2 Flyer victory. The goal came startlingly when MacLeish, facing off against Perreault to the right of Edwards, decided to try to score on the draw, a stratagem he later called a "one-in-a-million shot." The puck was dropped, MacLeish caught it perfectly and fired a wrist shot past Edwards. Perreault was stunned. "When the puck went in, I think, 'Oh, no!' " he said. " 'Not a goal like that:' "
MacLeish was plainly outplaying the Buffalo star, a fact that left the Sabres' rookie coach, Marcel Pronovost, fretting. Pronovost, once a star defenseman with the Detroit Red Wings, concedes nothing to Shero when it comes to making moves. In what everybody assumed was a frantic effort to maneuver his player away from MacLeish, Pronovost kept pulling Perreault in and out of the game for the briefest of shifts. But Shero did not budge. In went Perreault, and MacLeish followed. Out came Perreault, and MacLeish followed. And so it went.
Back in Buffalo for the third and fourth games, Pronovost came in for some second-guessing by the local press. Mainly because of the short shifts, Perreault had been on the ice a total of just 17 minutes in each of the games in Philadelphia, compared with a normal 20-plus minutes. But Pronovost insisted he meant not so much to get Perreault away from MacLeish as to psych up his struggling player. "Gilbert lives on pride," explained Pronovost. "By putting him in for short shifts, perhaps certain things go through his mind. Like, 'Hey, does the coach think that maybe I can't handle MacLeish?' "
Perreault finally got going in the third game. Pronovost was now making the last line changes, and it was with relief that he sent Perreault out, mostly against Clarke and Orest Kindrachuk, never mind that both are more tenacious checkers than MacLeish. The Sabres skated better before the home crowd, and Perreault was almost his old self again, head bobbing and mouth working a wad of gum as he dashed here and darted there. He got in nearly 21 minutes of ice time and early in the third period deflected a shot by teammate Jocelyn Guevremont past Parent to break a 1-1 tie and send the Sabres on to a 4-1 win. The Flyer goal? By Rick MacLeish, of course.
Pronovost actually matched Perreault against MacLeish for several shifts in the fourth game Sunday, but the Sabre star seemed dispirited, no matter whom he faced. MacLeish, still going strong, scored his fifth goal of the series as the Flyers won 4-2 to pull ahead three games to one.
As the teams returned to Philadelphia for Tuesday's fifth game, Perreault conceded gloomily, "I'm going to have to do a better job of watching MacLeish." Indeed, that seemed to be his only solution to a situation that had become rather one-sided.