Ten minutes before the opening face-off in last Thursday night's showdown between the Montreal Canadiens and the New York Islanders, scalpers outside the Forum were still getting $125 for a single $15 seat in the "reds." Inside, Guy Lafleur and the Canadiens were about to begin an all-points search for their mystique, which had mysteriously vanished sometime during the previous two weeks.
Lafleur, the NHL scoring champion the last three seasons, had not scored a goal in seven games—"an eternity," he called it—and the Canadiens, who had strolled to the Stanley Cup championship in those three seasons, had won only two of their previous eight games. "It's tough to take," Lafleur noted, "when you're not used to it." The Canadiens were even less used to being two points behind the precocious Islanders, which is where they found themselves in their season-long war to gain the NHL's best record and the No. 1 seed in the playoffs. In addition, Lafleur was eight points behind Islander Center Bryan Trottier in the scoring race. Sacre bleu!
"Everybody says that what the Islanders are doing is good for hockey," said Montreal Goalie Ken Dryden. "Maybe it is, but it's not good for the Canadiens."
The plight of Lafleur and the Canadiens was severe enough to bounce even Margaret Trudeau's daily escapades from the front pages of Montreal's newspapers. Forget about Margaret's latest 3 a.m. disco partner. What's wrong with Lafleur? What's wrong with Les Canadiens? An entire nation was asking.
"Lafleur's just in a little slump, that's all," suggested Jean Beliveau, the former center extraordinaire who now is the Canadiens' senior vice-president for corporate affairs. But another Canadien official said, "The trouble with Guy, I'm afraid, is that he always goes as the team goes. The team is going badly now, and Lafleur is, too. When the team gets going, Guy'll get going. But I don't think Lafleur will be the guy who'll get the team going, if you know what I mean."
Does that imply that Lafleur is a front-runner?
"You said it, not me."
New York's Glenn (Chico) Resch, the thinking man's goaltender, had his own theory about what was wrong with Lafleur, but he did not want to reveal it until after the game. "The less I think or say about Lafleur before the game, the better it is for my peace of mind," said Resch. "Then again, maybe Lafleur will shoot pucks through my theory tonight."
Lafleur's goal-scoring famine was hardly the only reason why the Canadiens were mired in what Coach Scotty Bowman called "our first slump in almost four years." All season long Montreal had been ravaged by injuries; last week the team's publicity department issued a Bilan des Blessures that showed various ailing Canadiens had missed a total of 158 games.
Also, as Dryden observed, the Canadiens now were "a team with three defensemen looking for a fourth, or a team with two defensemen looking for two more." The unexpected off-season retirement of 26-year-old Bill Nyrop had robbed the Canadiens of their No. 4 defenseman and, to complicate things, Guy Lapointe, a frequent all-star on defense, had been performing erratically. As a result, Larry Robinson, who would try to play against the Islanders after missing seven games with a knee injury, and Serge Savard oftentimes had to be on the ice more than 40 minutes a game.
It was obvious, too, that the Canadiens sorely missed the genius of Sam Pollock, who retired as general manager last summer following the team's ninth Stanley Cup triumph in 14 years. Pollock left a house divided, a house confused. Most people expected that Pollock would appoint Bowman, who had been a highly successful general manager in St. Louis, as his replacement, but Pollock split the responsibilities among several people, with Irving Grundman assuming the No. 1 title as managing director.
Grundman's detractors claim that while he may well be a shrewd businessman, he is not a "hockey man." A hockey man, a Pollock, would have obtained a No. 4 defenseman for the Canadiens by now, or so they insist. "Would Sam Pollock have let Phil Russell be traded from Chicago to Atlanta when Phil Russell was exactly the defenseman the Canadiens needed?" they ask.
Meanwhile, all was serene among the Islanders. They had already beaten the Canadiens in two of their three meetings this season, and they were buoyed by the fact that they had compiled a better record than the Canadiens even while playing a more difficult schedule. The Islanders drew 33 games against what are now the third- through seventh-place teams in the NHL's overall standings, the Canadiens just 20.
And while Denis Potvin clearly had become the premier defenseman in the NHL, Trottier had replaced Lafleur as the premier forward. The shy, 22-year-old Trottier claims that he is more talkative this year, particularly in the dressing room, where, he says, he no longer hesitates to prod teammates into exerting greater effort. "In the past," Trottier says, "I always felt who was I to speak out, but now I do it and the hell with the consequences. If I make some guy mad, that's his problem. All I want everyone to know is how hard I work on the ice. I want them to see players years from now and think, 'Hey, that guy plays just as hard as Trottier used to play.' "
For almost two seasons, Trottier's line, with sniper Mike Bossy and massive Clark Gillies on the wings, had been the most potent attack force in the NHL, averaging almost four points a game, but in a stunning move Islander Coach Al Arbour recently replaced Gillies at left wing with John Tonelli, a scrapper imported last summer from the WHA. "A very wise decision," Bowman says. "Despite their record, the Islanders were too much of a one-line club, and in the playoffs it's pretty easy to stop one big line with a line made up of checking specialists. That's what Toronto did to them last year."
What usually happens when the Islanders play in Montreal is this: the Islanders, perhaps overawed, become too defensive-minded, and rather than skate their own crisp-passing, high-scoring game, they try to defense the Canadiens' attack instead. "It's like we've wanted to beat them 1-0 on a fluke goal from center ice," said one Islander. "And that style never worked. Whatever happens tonight will happen because we've played our game. We're No. 1 now—not the Canadiens. Let them stop us."
The Canadiens did not come close to stopping the Islanders, and Lafleur, though he took seven shots at Resch, did not come close to breaking his goal-scoring drought. As 18,083, the largest crowd of the season, watched in amazement, the Islanders seemed to toy with the befuddled Canadiens most of the game, which was played at a level of skill and speed rarely seen in these expansion times.
Bossy's league-high 59th goal, scored while Tonelli held the attention of the two Montreal defensemen, gave the Islanders a 1-0 lead at 1:40 of the first period. When the P.A. man announced that Trottier had been given an assist on Bossy's goal, moving him nine points ahead of Lafleur, the pro-Lafleur crowd booed for several seconds.
For the next 10 minutes one Islander after another broke through the beleaguered Montreal defense and assaulted Dryden on breakaways, but Dryden either made a miracle save or Islanders such as Wayne Merrick and Bob Bourne slid their shots wide of the cage. Then Jacques Lemaire tied the game for the Canadiens on a power-play goal, and two minutes later the crowd stood and roared when the P.A. man announced that Trottier's assist on Bossy's goal had been "taken off" and given to Tonelli instead, as indeed it should have been.
Moments later, though, Trottier had his assist back when he set up Pat Price for a shot that Dryden caught easily but accidentally dropped into the goal. The Islanders continued to bombard him, and near the end of the period Potvin, playing his best game ever in the Forum, went the length of the ice and set up Lorne Henning's goal for a 3-1 lead.
"We were lucky it wasn't 7-1," said Savard.
After receiving a tongue-lashing from Bowman, the Canadiens flew out for the second period and tied the score at 3-3 on goals by Mario Tremblay and Lemaire. "When the Canadiens have exploded like that in the past, we've always gone under," said Resch.
Not this time. Potvin promptly put the Islanders ahead 4-3 with his 30th goal of the season on a shot from the blue line. Then late in the final period, Bourne, who had missed on numerous breakaways, beat Dryden for the clinching goal. The Islanders skated off with a convincing 5-3 victory.
Still, there was a fleeting moment late in the third period, when the score was 4-3, that neither Resch nor the Islanders would like to relive. Suddenly there was Lafleur busting down the right wing, the puck on his stick, the defenseman practically beaten. Why, one could almost hear the P.A. man screeching, "Le but des Canadiens...Numèro dix...Guy Laaaafleurrrr."
Resch calmly made the save.
"Now for my theory," Resch said later. "Right now Lafleur is going the way of the average scorer. He is predictable. You can see he is fighting the puck, and when you do that you tend to keep everything basic and just blast away. When he cut in on me that time, I thought he'd shoot the puck—and he did, just as he had done all night. But I had cut down the angle and he didn't have much to shoot at. Now, if he had been in a hot streak, well, he'd have made one or two of his couple of thousand moves and who knows what would have happened. He's not playing with much confidence, you could see that. It's really all psychological. I convinced myself that he was in a slump and played him that way."
In the losers' dressing room, none of the Canadiens offered excuses. "We played our best game in two months," Savard said. "They just played better. They're a good team, eh? It's too bad all the games aren't like this. The people really got their money's worth."
Even at $125 a seat.