It had been four years and two days since the Montreal Canadiens faced elimination from the Stanley Cup playoffs, but there they were last Thursday night, teetering on the brink of disaster in their game at the Forum with the Boston Bruins. The semifinal series stood at three games apiece—the home team had won every game—and the winner would advance to the finals against the precocious New York Rangers, who had completed their devastating upset of the top-seeded New York Islanders two nights before.
The Bruins, a gutsy team the Canadiens had soundly beaten the past two years in the Stanley Cup finals, hadn't won in the Forum since October 1976—14 straight games—but now, leading 3-1 after two periods, they seemed to be on the verge of ending their jinx. Boston's backup goaltender, Gilles Gilbert, who had sparked the Bruins to three wins in four games after Montreal had beaten Gerry Cheevers in the first two, was making one scintillating save after another. Captain Wayne Cashman, whose sore back was so tender he had to take pregame injections to kill the pain, had scored two goals and an assist, and with 20 minutes to play, even the most diehard Forum fanatics feared that the game was Boston's.
However, things were seen a little differently in Montreal's dressing room. "We forgot that it was 3-1," said 33-year-old Defenseman Serge Savard, the Montreal captain, "and decided to work hard for the next goal. Then, when we got that, we knew that one lucky shot would tie it. As an athlete, you never think you will lose."
So, at 6:10 of the third period, the confident and incomparable Guy Lafleur burst past Mike Milbury, one of Boston's tiring defensemen, and swooped around the Bruin net. As the flow came toward him, Lafleur passed the puck against the grain to Mark Napier, who slapped it just inside the near post. The Boston lead was now 3-2. Two minutes later, on a Montreal power play, Lafleur set up Guy Lapointe in a similar manner, and Lapointe, who was later carried from the ice on a stretcher with a badly sprained knee, tied the game at 3-3 with a shot that went past the screened Gilbert.
Rick Middleton put the Bruins back on top with 3:59 to play, but, astonishingly, Boston was penalized for having too many men on the ice, and with only 1:14 to play, Lafleur took the one lucky shot that Savard had talked about. Coming over the blue line, Jacques Lemaire dropped a pass to Lafleur, who slapped the puck on the fly, driving it past Gilbert into the lower left corner of the net.
Superstars like Lafleur do such things, saving their finest moments for the times of greatest need under maximum exposure. They have that knack. Just plain stars do wonderful things when the pressure is not quite so intense. Savard's role in the Canadiens' winning goal, which came at 9:33 of sudden death, is a case in point.
The big, dry-humored Canadien was defending alone against Middleton, and as Middleton tried to cut to the inside, about 35 feet in front of Montreal Goaltender Ken Dryden, Savard deftly took the puck off his stick. He wheeled and passed instantly to Rejean Houle, who in turn tipped the puck to Mario Tremblay. Tremblay broke around Boston Defenseman Al Sims and passed the puck across the crease to Yvon Lambert, who then rapped it through Gilbert's legs and into the goal to give the Canadiens a stunning 5-4 win and a berth in the finals. Savard, who was still at center ice when the goal was scored, didn't earn an assist on the play he had started, but he couldn't have cared less.
Quietly, cleanly, dependably, Savard had done his usual outstanding work. He had killed penalties, played forward on the power play—an unusual move that Coach Scotty Bowman made to give his team more muscle in front of the Bruin net—and had been on the ice for all five Montreal goals. He had also probably saved the game for the Canadiens back in the first period when he stopped a shot by Stan Jonathan after Jonathan had deked Dryden out of the net.
Totally exhausted after the Boston series, the Canadiens postponed Game 1 of the finals from Saturday night at 8 p.m. to Mother's Day at 4 p.m. in order to get an extra night's rest, but as it turned out only their mothers could have appreciated their performance. The Rangers, written off in the Montreal press as pretenders who would fall in four straight, produced a convincing 4-1 victory, the same score by which they had upset the Islanders in the opening game of that series.
Leading 2-1 midway through the game, the Rangers sealed their victory when Defenseman Larry Robinson, who had a terrible game, failed to clear the puck and Phil Esposito beat Dryden from the slot. Moments later, Dave Maloney completed the insult by scoring the Rangers' sixth shorthanded goal of the playoffs—an NHL record.
"We gave the Rangers three goals like you give up in junior hockey," Savard moaned afterward, recalling the three pass interceptions that the opportunistic Rangers converted into goals. "We didn't play a disciplined game, and now they're going to be tough to beat. They're a much better club than the Bruins."
Savard has sleepy, Sad Sack eyes that become boyish when he smiles, something he was not doing after the loss to the Rangers. His movements are slow and thorough, almost studied, like those of a man who can spread cold butter on his bread without tearing holes in it. Savard doesn't waste much energy, on or off the ice. "Serge realizes that he has a lot of ice time ahead of him in games, and he paces himself a little," says Dryden.
Savard has made a career out of controlling situations without bringing a great deal of attention to himself. He skates with long, awkward strides, almost as if his blades were slipping, and he hunches over a stick that appears too short for him. But try to race him. "There's not too many guys on that Canadien club that can beat him once around the ice," says former teammate Don Awrey. "Lafleur included."
The 6'2", 210-pound Savard is a prototype of what general managers now consider the thoroughbred of the species—the big, mobile defenseman. It is generally accepted that because the Canadiens have three such defenders—Savard, Lapointe and Robinson—they have taken a long lease on the Stanley Cup. But while Lapointe has made the first or second all-star team four times, and Robinson twice, Savard, who scores fewer points but plays more defense, has never been selected for that honor. "It's a joke," says Awrey.
To Savard, the slight amounts to little more than an amusing comment on the writers' knowledge of the game. "I play in L.A. twice, Colorado twice. What do they see?" he says. "The guy there picks up the paper at the end of the year and sees who's scored the most points. It doesn't bother me. It seems to bother everyone else, because now I'm asked that question all the time. I am appreciated here. That's what matters to me."
There was a time when Savard was expected to blossom into a rushing, high-scoring defenseman à la Bobby Orr, but he shattered his left leg in 1970 and broke it again less than a year later.
One of only three Canadiens to play every game this season, Savard saves his offensive bursts for the right moments. "He plays the game the way the score is," says Claude Ruel, the Canadiens' assistant coach. "He understands the game. He understands when you need a goal and when you need to stop a goal." Because the Canadiens are not often in the position in which they found themselves against the Bruins, Savard normally spends most of his time concentrating on defense. Says Bowman, "He plays with his head."
Behind that slow smile and crooked nose is a clever mind. The mind of an entrepreneur. Savard is a most unusual fellow. He made himself wealthy between 1969 and 1976 as a licensed distributor of lottery tickets until the provincial government took over the operation. In 1974 Savard persuaded teammates Yvan Cournoyer and Lapointe to join him and 12 other investors in the purchase of a hockey-stick company; last fall they sold it for a whopping profit. Savard also is the publisher of a Montreal weekly, L'Image de la Rive Sud (The South Shore Image), which has 34 employees and a circulation of 120,000; he now is thinking about starting similar weeklies in other sections of the city. Then there are Savard's four harness horses, one of whom, Keith Lobell, won $98,570 in 1978 as a 2-year-old.
Asked how he has time to follow his businesses and still play hockey, Savard grins and answers, "How did Howard Hughes run his businesses and still have time to hide?"
Sitting in the dressing room after the dramatic win over Boston, Savard puffed on a cigar as the reporters descended on him. "What shall we talk about?" he asked them. "Horses?" He did. Keith Lobell was racing the next night at Roosevelt Raceway, which is owned by the same conglomerate that owns the Rangers. He was a 6-1 shot, but Savard knew his colt would win. He was clearly the best horse. New Yorkers were dunderheads for not making him the favorite.
"I'd like to fly down and see old Keith tomorrow," Savard said. "That's a big race—a $20,000 purse. We only get $17,000 for winning the Stanley Cup."
Alas, the colt finished third, and on Sunday Keith Lobell's owner finished second—in a two-team field.