When it was all over last Sunday night, Boston's Brad Park sat contemplating his bruises. He also sipped a cold beer, happily considering the surprising possibility that, if things continued to go this well, he might soon be drinking champagne. A few moments earlier, with Park dominating the play from his defense position the way Bobby Orr once did, the Bruins—hockey's Lunch Pail Athletic Club—had beaten the favored Montreal Canadiens 4-3 to tie the Stanley Cup finals at two games apiece. The victory had come on a Bobby Schmautz goal at 6:22 of sudden-death overtime, and now Park and his teammates were flying high in their Boston Garden dressing room. "This is a victory toast," Park said. "I can taste victory, I can smell it. Nobody gave us a chance to beat Montreal in the finals. No one. But now, if we've done nothing else, we have destroyed the myth of the Canadiens' invincibility."
The enthusiasm was understandable. If the Canadiens had not been destroyed, they had been humiliated. After opening the series with 4-1 and 3-2 victories, they had come to Boston poised for a four-game sweep. But last Thursday they had been so embarrassed by Park and the Bruins that Boston Goaltender Gary Cheevers never had to make a difficult save in the Bruins' 4-0 victory. Clearly intimidated by Boston's heavy checking in Game 3, Montreal showed up for Game 4 in a vengeful mood. "No way Boston's going to knock us all over the place in this game, too," said one Canadien.
With the score tied at 1-1 in the first period, Montreal Coach Scotty Bowman decided it was time for the Canadiens to flex their muscles. He sent out his Goon Squad Revue—6'6", 210-pound Gilles Lupien and 6'2", 208-pound Pierre Bouchard. Boston countered with 5'8", 170-pound Stan Jonathan and 6-foot, 200-pound John Wensink. Once the puck was dropped, both Bouchard and Jonathan dropped their gloves. Jonathan, a full-blooded Tuscarora Indian from Six Nations, Ontario, beat upon Bouchard's face like a tom-tom in winning the French and Indian War of 1978. He busted open Bouchard's face and the Montreal defenseman crumpled to the ice in a pool of his own blood. Wensink and Lupien chose wrestling over boxing, and Wensink decisively won in two straight falls. Jonathan and Bouchard got five-minute penalties for fighting, Wensink and Lupien were ejected from the game.
Although Boston won that battle, Montreal took the lead in the war 2-1 in the second period. Defenseman Larry Robinson (see cover) rifled a shot past Cheevers after rookie Pierre Mondou had outfaked Boston's Peter McNab on a face-off to Cheevers' right.
Then, midway through the final period, Boston struck again. At 9:19, McNab backhanded a loose puck past Ken Dryden to tie the score at 2-2. And at 12:37 Park made two adroit moves in front of Dryden and slid the puck through three pairs of legs—Serge Savard's, Greg Sheppard's and Dryden's—to put the Bruins ahead 3-2. With Dryden removed for an extra skater, Montreal tied the score, forcing the overtime when Savard batted the puck past Cheevers with 33 seconds to play.
The Canadiens stormed Cheevers early in the overtime, just as they had in Game 2 in Montreal when they beat the Bruins on a Guy Lafleur blast in sudden death—and twice they came close. Then Park—who as a New York Ranger always maintained that he was as good as Orr, but never played that way until this season—intercepted a Montreal pass and rifled the puck to Sheppard at center ice. Sheppard went to his left, almost against the boards, and dropped a soft pass to Schmautz, who was cutting through the middle in the Montreal zone. Schmautz has one of hockey's highest shots, his best blasts usually ending up in Row 4 of the mezzanine. But this time he hesitated, forcing Robinson to his knees and, using the downed Canadien as a screen, whipped a low shot past Dryden's left leg and into the net.
"I never saw anything," Dryden said.
The series was not supposed to be this tough for Montreal. The Canadiens had expected to dispose of Boston in less time than it takes Roger Doucet to polish off O Canada before games at the Forum. After all, these were Les Canadiens, Le Rouge, Blanc et Bleu, the best players General Manager Sam Pollock could assemble with the dozens of high draft choices obtained from needier NHL teams. The Canadiens had lost only 29 of 240 games in the past three seasons. In the last two Stanley Cup playoff's, they had lost just three of 27 games—none in the finals—in sweeping Philadelphia in 1976 and Boston in 1977. And they were chasing their seventh Stanley Cup title in 11 years. If the Canadiens win it, they get the cup for the 21st time, enabling them to tie the New York Yankees for the lead in team championships.
"The people don't expect us to lose, so we have no choice but to win," Savard said last week. "If we lose this series to Boston, people will be phoning those radio hot-line shows with orders to trade half the team. The pressure from the fans—and our management—never leaves us."
And the pressure was typically on at the Forum when the Canadiens whipped the Bruins 4-1 in Game 1. Lafleur tied the score at 1-1 early in the first period when he golfed the puck out of midair and past Cheevers before the unsuspecting goaltender could blink. Then he set up Montreal's next two goals with artistic passes. He dazzled the Bruins with one breakaway after another, and only Cheevers' spectacular play prevented the Canadiens from doubling their output of goals. "We skated in reverse," said Park, "and the Canadiens were always in overdrive."
This represented a normal night's work for the 26-year-old Lafleur, who this season led the NHL in scoring for the third straight year. The role suits Lafleur and he accepts it. "I am playing more for the people than myself," he says. "The people here expect me to do more and more every day. It never stops. I have friends who bring friends to a game and tell them about the way I play, so I cannot disappoint them. I owe them a show for the money they pay to watch me."
Still, on Tuesday night in Game 2, Lafleur didn't bother to perform until almost midnight. For three periods, Boston Wing Don Marcotte kept him away from the puck—"Marcotte checks me better than anyone else in the league," Lafleur concedes—and they both watched Cheevers frustrate the other Canadiens with brilliant goaltending.
Twice Cheevers stopped 36-goal-scorer Jacques Lemaire from dead in front of the net. Twice he turned back 49-goal-scorer Steve Shutt's best shots. Another time Cheevers so psyched-out Yvan Cournoyer that the Roadrunner never got off his shot. One moment Cournoyer was at the goal mouth with the puck. Seeking a slightly better angle, he started to glide to his right. Cheevers followed him. Cournoyer kept gliding. Cheevers kept following. The goaltender had become a forechecker. Suddenly the exasperated Cournoyer found himself almost against the sideboards—and a Bruin skated by to relieve him of the puck. Several shifts later, Cournoyer cut in against Cheevers on a two-on-one. This time, Cournoyer rifled a shot for the right corner of the net. Cheevers blocked it with his shoulder.
Effectively employing a new defensive strategy that called for one forward to stay back and help his defensemen, who had been ordered to play conservatively to limit the Canadiens' breakaway opportunities, Boston had much the better of play in regulation, which ended with the teams deadlocked 2-2.
But in sudden death it was all Montreal as the Canadiens swarmed over the Bruins. On one series Cheevers, who had lost his stick, somehow blocked four straight shots with various parts of his body. Another time Cournoyer had not one but two whacks into what seemed to be an empty net, but Cheevers blocked both shots with his ample belly.
Then, 13 minutes into overtime, Lafleur showed up. Taking a pass from Robinson, he bolted down the right wing—almost along the boards. Subtly—so subtly, in fact, that he later could not recall doing it—Lafleur maneuvered Cheevers into the crease. Normally Cheevers would have moved out to cut down Lafleur's shooting angle, but now he had to worry about a possible pass from Lafleur to Robinson, who was streaking down center ice. In that instant, with the Montreal crowd roaring, Lafleur blasted the puck between Cheevers' left leg and the post—and the Canadiens won 3-2.
"I had a feeling," Lafleur said. "I knew the fans wanted me to score, not just anyone."
Despite the fact that they now trailed the Canadiens two games to none, and had not beaten Montreal in 14 straight games, the Bruins were hardly depressed. "We slowed them down to our speed in that second game and eliminated their breakaways," said Park. "And we also learned that maybe the Canadiens don't have the great team that everyone thinks they have. When it came to the overtime, they used only three defensemen and just two lines. That tells you something about how good their other 10 players really are."
The skating surface in Boston is at least nine feet shorter—all in the area between the blue lines—and two feet narrower than the rink in Montreal. As Cheevers says, "The Garden seems to be all boards, and we're mainly a boards team, while the Forum seems to be the wide open spaces—just right for a free-skating team like the Canadiens."
In Game 3 Thursday night, the Bruins totally closed down Montreal's skating game by mercilessly harassing Lafleur and his teammates with solid body checks, and when it was over they had a 4-0 victory that was a lot more one-sided than the Canadiens' 4-1 romp in the opening game. Boston took a 1-0 lead in the first minute and led 2-0 before the game was six minutes old. "After that it became pretty obvious that we're not a very good come-from-behind team," said Montreal Winger Bob Gainey. "Then again, we haven't had much practice at coming from behind."
The Canadiens attacked Cheevers only 16 times, mostly from such long range that he hardly worked up a sweat. The Bruins, for their part, ripped 36 shots at Dryden. "The Bruins loved the game," he said. "They had the times of their lives. It was sheer enjoyment to them because they could do everything they wanted. I don't recall any game in which we were dominated over 60 minutes. The tide never came close to turning."
Surely it was a fluke. Boston was due.
"It was no fluke," Dryden said. "We were really hammered, and when you're hammered it's never a fluke."
Down the hall, Cheevers relaxed in his white terry cloth robe—Royal Ski, the name of a racehorse Cheevers syndicated last season for a reported $1.3 million, is emblazoned on the back—and sipped a beer. "Well, we've done one thing nobody thought we'd do." he said. "We put some interest back into the finals."
Indeed they had. And after Sunday night's victory there was more than interest in the air. There was the distinct possibility, as Park put it, that no team is invincible. Even the invincible Canadiens.