It seems absurd that the Montreal Canadiens, those seigneurs of hockey, would ever feel the need to vindicate themselves, but such was the case in the Stanley Cup finals last week. For almost two months the Montreal players had read Les Canadiens sont mort on every face in Quebec.
After all, the Canadiens had finished second to the New York Islanders—by one point—in the NHL's overall standings, a sure sign to skeptics that the foundation of their dynasty had decayed. Then, in the Cup semifinals, the beleaguered Canadiens had barely scraped past Boston by the margin of an overtime goal in the seventh game. And when the New York Rangers had soundly trounced them 4-1 in the opener of the finals—right there in the Forum—well, sacrè bleu, the word on rue Ste-Catherine was, "Those players, they do not deserve to wear the uniform that the Rocket wore."
"People think of Montrealers as being such sophisticated hockey fans," says one Quebecker, "but they're the same as people everywhere else: 'What have you done for me lately?' "
Well, lately—Monday night, in fact—the Canadiens gave their followers another Stanley Cup as they beat the New York Rangers for the fourth straight time to take the series four games to one. It was Les Canadiens' fourth consecutive Cup, their eighth in 12 seasons and their 22nd in history—but the first Cup won at the Forum since 1968, when their captain, Serge Savard, was a rookie.
May 27, 1979
And now, as the Forum reverberated with the traditional victory song—Les Canadiens Sont Là—it was Savard who was hoisting the Cup and skating around in triumph. All was forgiven.
Savard grinned, "It's always the last game that the people remember."
Before Monday night's game, Montreal Goaltender Ken Dryden, perhaps the one Canadien who had to vindicate himself the most, offered an explanation for the fans' discontent. "This season things have not gone in a nice progression, the way they have in years past," he said. "It's been three steps forward, two steps back all year long."
For Dryden and the Canadiens, it was one giant step backward in the 4-1 opening loss to the Rangers, then a small step backward in the first minutes of Game 2 last Tuesday night when the Rangers surged to a 2-0 lead. Dryden, who played erratically throughout the Boston series, had been lifted after the second period of Game 1, having surrendered all four goals. Michel (Bunny) Larocque, his longtime backup, was scheduled to play Game 2, his first playoff start since 1974.
But with exactly one minute to go in the pregame warmup, Doug Risebrough fired a rising shot that cracked the plastic of Larocque's cage mask and crashed against the goaltender's forehead. Down went Larocque. "It was like walking on a boat with the sea really moving," he said after he had returned from the hospital, his brow a purplish brown.
Dryden was greeted by a chorus of boos when announced as the Montreal goaltender, and when two of the Rangers' first three shots went past him, the Forum fans rose and shook their programs at him threateningly. Leading 2-0 after only seven minutes of play, the precocious Rangers were entertaining thoughts of a two-game sweep in Montreal, a four-game sweep of the series and New York's first Stanley Cup in 39 years.
It took the Canadiens only 3:50 to wipe the smugness from the Rangers' faces as Yvon Lambert and Guy Lafleur tied the game at 2-2. Then, four minutes later—at 16:27—Bob Gainey beat Ranger Goalie John Davidson for what proved to be the winning score. In less than eight minutes Montreal had scored as many goals on Davidson—three—as he had allowed in any of his 14 previous playoff games, discounting overtimes.
Unfortunately for the Rangers, Montreal was just tuning up. Skating like the Canadiens of old (three steps forward), Montreal added three more goals—six straight for the game—as Dryden was shutting out New York the rest of the way. The 6-2 win evened the series.
Coach Fred Shero admitted that his Rangers were due for a bad game—they had gone a month without one—but it was an undeniably listless performance, one that, as Montreal Coach Scotty Bowman put it, "took the air out of their balloon."
"Boy, did I play rotten," said Ranger Center Phil Esposito. Part of Esposito's problem was his concern with Bowman's tactics. Two of Montreal's lesser-known defensemen, Rod Langway and Rick Chartraw, had been a little too aggressive for Espo's liking during the first two games, and he went on record as saying they were Bowman's personal messengers of ill will. Bowman and Esposito had held a mutual grudge since the 1976 Canada Cup tournament, in which Esposito was unceremoniously benched by the Canadiens' coach. In one amusing interview back in New York, Ranger major-domo Sonny Werblin accused Bowman of sending Langway onto the ice to "ram his stick into Espo's eyes" and called for his banishment from the world of sport.
Shero would have none of Esposito's or Werblin's whining. "Phil's a big boy, he can take care of himself," he said. "It's a man's game. Give him a stick if the ref doesn't stop it."
When the series moved to New York for Game 3 Thursday night, Montreal played flawlessly and won 4-1, holding New York to just 20 shots on Dryden. The only goal the Rangers could put past him was a fluky shot by Ron Duguay that deflected off Savard's skate.
Meanwhile, Dryden's down-and-up week was further clouded by reports that he was a) considering retirement after the season in order to study for his bar exam, b) considering a reverse defection of sorts to the Soviet Union so he could play hockey there for a season—which prompted lots of Siberia jokes in Montreal—and c) considering writing a book on the order of a Ball Four on ice. Dryden denied none of these—stressing that they were ideas—although he did say, "You end up writing a book that suits your personality, and Ball Four isn't exactly my personality." But he denied feeling vindicated by the two wins. Then, when a reporter said he had timed the Garden's pregame standing ovation for the Rangers at two minutes, Dryden couldn't resist a friendly poke at the fans in Montreal. "Even a sitting ovation would be something there," he said. "Even sitting silence."
Esposito was held scoreless again in Game 3, and at one point the always pacifists Esposito was so frustrated that he actually threw a punch—maybe the first of his 18-year career—at Langway, a 21-year-old native of Boston who had once—in a gentler time—received a scholastic hockey award from Esposito, then a Bruin.
Esposito finally broke his mini-slump Saturday night in Game 4, which the Canadiens won 4-3 in overtime. Esposito set up the Rangers' second goal, then put New York ahead 3-2 in the third period by snapping a shot through Dryden's legs. But two minutes later, Gainey—the best forward in the series—evened the score with a spectacular individual effort. When Davidson cleared the puck into the corner, Gainey bowled over Defenseman Dave Maloney, picked up the puck, skated out in front and shot it past Davidson.
Montreal totally dominated the overtime and, in fact, scored twice—fairly unusual for sudden death. First, Larry Robinson slapped a long shot past Davidson, but the puck traveled so fast that neither the goal judge nor the referee saw it enter the net and slingshot out. But then Savard, who seems to pace himself for such moments, took a pass from Lafleur and backhanded it over Davidson's shoulder—and the red light went on.
As the Canadiens departed for Montreal with a 3-1 edge, and the ghosts of Canadien-teams-past off their backs for the first time all season, Savard said about the Rangers, "They're a great team for the future. But we have so much more experience. I think they will have to wait another year or two."