Last Thursday night at the Montreal Forum it seemed like the good old days—for exactly two periods. Les Canadiens were wheeling about the ice, forechecking, attacking, headmanning the puck, and at the heart of the charge was the indomitable Guy Lafleur. When Montreal is on its game, it seems as if no one else is on the ice, and the St. Louis Blues were practically invisible. The score was only 4-0—two goals for Lafleur, two for linemate Steve Shutt—thanks mainly to the stand-'em-on-their-heads play of St. Louis Goaltender Mike Liut. "We were perfect for two periods, perfect," said Lucky Pierre Larouche, who centers for Shutt and Lafleur.
Only this wasn't the old days. This wasn't two years ago, when the Canadiens were winning their fourth straight Stanley Cup and the Blues were the doormats of the league, losing 50 games. This was the 70th game of the 1980-81 season and St. Louis was in first place in the overall NHL standings, a position it had never held past the third game of any season in its 13-year history. Now, in the third period, the Canadiens started sagging, and the Blues took command, scoring three unanswered goals before the clock ran out on them. The 4-3 defeat was their first this season to Montreal, and it left them eight points up on the third-place Canadiens and four up on the second-place New York Islanders with three weeks to go before the playoffs. Afterward the Canadiens were wondering what had happened to their killer instinct—in their Stanley Cup years it was unheard of to gain on Montreal in the third period—and the Forum fans were thinking that these two clubs may well meet again in the Stanley Cup finals. It would be a good match.
The Blues and the Canadiens are opposites. The strength of one is, in most instances, the weakness of the other. Montreal's defense is peerless; St. Louis' is suspect. In Liut, the Blues have the best goalie in hockey, the new Ken Dryden; the Canadiens' goaltending situation has been a circus. The Blues lead the league in scoring, Montreal in fewest goals allowed. The Blues have had a harmonious season, the Canadiens a troubled one.
But the biggest difference between the clubs has to do with tradition. The Forum reeks with it. Twenty-one Stanley Cup banners hang from the rafters, and Canadien rookies and other newcomers are forced to serve apprenticeships on the bench until they are found worthy and hungry enough to wear the uniform. St. Louis was molded from rookies and castoffs brought in by General Manager Emile Francis, and all that hangs from the rafters of their cereal palace, a/k/a The Checkerdome, are suicidal ticket holders who had to watch the Blues play between 1977 and 1979, when they lost 97 games in two seasons.
While Canadien players spent those summers brimming with pride over yet another Stanley Cup, Blues players like Bryan Sutter and Bernie Federko spent the off-season dreading being asked for whom they played. The Saint Louis Blues? Kids at their hockey camps would smirk and withdraw requests for autographs. Nine members of the present team were on the 1978-79 St. Louis club that went 18-50-12.
"They all know what it's like to be on one of the worst teams in the league," says Blues Coach Red Berenson, "and not one of them is going to forget it. They lost, but they didn't become losers."
It was Berenson's appearance behind the bench early last season that precipitated the most dramatic turnaround in NHL history. The Blues had gotten off to another dismal start (8-16-4) when illness forced Coach Barclay Plager to step down. Berenson, who as a high-scoring center was the cornerstone of the St. Louis franchise during its early NHL years, had been Plager's assistant, and Francis wisely named him coach. In the next 16 games the Blues went 10-3-3, and they haven't looked back. "The hardest part of the job early on was lifting the mental blocks off what we thought of as our limitations," says Berenson. "Once we did that, things started to go better. And, of course, Liut softened the bumps for us."
Steamrollered is more the word. With Liut in goal, the Blues were 32-23-9 last season; without him, they were 2-11-3. He gave them the confidence to make mistakes—hockey may be a game of mistakes, but you can't play in fear of them—and if the Blues fell behind, they figured Liut would keep them close. So they kept plugging. St. Louis earned the reputation of being a team that didn't have sense enough to know when to quit (this season the Blues are the only club with a winning record against teams scoring first), and it improved on its 1978-79 record by 32 points.
At the start of this season, no one dreamed St. Louis would be the NHL's most improved team a second year in a row, but that's just what it will be. In light of what the Blues had already accomplished, Berenson's own goals were modest: 1) to make the playoffs; 2) finish first in the (hapless) Smythe Division; 3) finish among the top eight teams in the league. He figured 90 points might do it. At week's end the Blues were at 99 and counting, with a 42-14-15 record.
"We're only a year older, but we're a helluva lot more than a year better," says Berenson. One of the main reasons is a more balanced attack. St. Louis has eight forwards with 20 or more goals. Leading this group are Wayne Babych with 50 and Federko, the club's top scorer with 93 points. Babych and Federko are two of a league-high 11 first-round draft selections that Francis either traded for or picked himself. Another is Blake Dunlop, a Minnesota and Philadelphia reject, who has emerged as the Blues' third-ranking scorer.
"We don't really know how good we are yet," says Dunlop. "We haven't had time to step back and say, 'Wow, we're in first place.' We decided early in the year we would outwork every team, and that's what we've done. I suppose we'll find our proper level in the playoffs."
The Blues gave an indication of how good they are in mid-February, when they bumped the Islanders from first place during a brutal five-game road trip. When it was over they had tied Buffalo, Montreal and the Islanders and beaten the Rangers and Calgary. "Before, we used to steal points from teams that thought, 'Ho-hum, it's St. Louis, so what?' " says Liut, who seems a sure bet to be league MVP. "Now when we win a game, we know we've won it. The teams are ready for us. We've proved we can win in any rink, and it's going to take quite a club to beat us in St. Louis."
The biggest question mark is the defense. Because most of his defensemen are shaky puck-handlers, Berenson instructs them not to carry the puck beyond the red line. "Up front we've got as good a group of forwards as anyone," says Defenseman Joe Micheletti, "but our success in the playoffs will depend on how disciplined we are in our own end."
The Canadiens, on the other hand, have been criticized for being too disciplined, if anything, in their own end. In the past when they got ahead they went for, and usually struck, the jugular by pressing the attack. This year they have tended to sit back in an effort to protect leads, a tactic that has led to several third-period debacles like the one Thursday night. "When you don't forecheck, you play in your zone," says Defenseman Serge Savard. "That's not our game."
Coach Claude Ruel has been blamed for instituting this defensive mentality, and some Canadiens have grumbled to the press that Bob Gainey, the team's great defensive forward, has become Ruel's confidant and has influenced his thinking. The grumbling peaked at the end of January, after lowly Edmonton had routed Montreal 9-1. Chris Nilan, the Canadiens' least polished but most pugnacious player, didn't dress that game, and afterward a disgusted Ruel announced Nilan would be in the lineup the rest of the year. To make room for Nilan the next game, Ruel benched Larouche, a 50-goal scorer last season. The Canadiens then tied Calgary 4-4 but two nights later lost 8-4 to Los Angeles.
The next day, Feb. 1, Lafleur used the Montreal papers as a forum in which he blasted his teammates for their divisive-ness and Ruel for benching Larouche. "It was no fun for Guy," says Larouche. "He's a team man, but he was the only one would could say it. I didn't play well in that 9-1 game, but in a 9-1 game it's hard to find anyone who played well. I didn't deserve getting benched."
The Canadiens promptly pulled their act togther. They were undefeated in February and are 13-1-4 since Lafleur's outburst. Lafleur himself has been hampered all year by injuries and has missed 22 games. But he's healthy now, and with Lafleur in the lineup, Montreal is a different team. It's no coincidence that when the Canadiens got knocked out of the playoffs last season for the first time in five years, Lafleur wasn't playing for the first time in five seasons. And it was also no coincidence that for the first time in five years Montreal had entered the playoffs without Dryden in goal.
Those closest to the Canadiens fear that if the team does fail to regain the Cup won last season by the Islanders, the reason will be a goaltending situation that has been part comedy, part horror show. When the season started, Denis Herron and Bunny Larocque shared the No. 1 spot. By late November, when Larocque had played 11 straight games without a defeat and Herron had lost four straight starts, the job seemed to belong to Larocque. But on Dec. 4 Larocque bruised his right hand. So the Canadiens called up Richard Sevigny from Nova Scotia, and he won his first three starts. Then Herron allowed two third-period goals in a Dec. 20 loss to Edmonton, and Ruel benched him and called up Rick Wamsley, who, like Sevigny, had been playing in Nova Scotia. Now it was Wamsley and Sevigny, with Herron and Larocque watching from the sidelines. Wamsley was 3-0-1 in his first four starts, with a 1.90 goals-against average, when he took a puck in the throat in his fifth straight start, on Jan. 2, and had to be replaced by Larocque. He was promptly returned to Nova Scotia.
By now, Larocque was healthy, and he and Sevigny shared the goaltending the next three weeks. Each day Montreal fans expected to read that Herron had been traded. On Jan. 19, Larocque was in goal during a 6-3 loss to Minnesota, and two nights later he allowed three goals in the first 10 minutes against Chicago. Ruel yanked him, and Sevigny played the rest of that game and all of the next two, the last of which was that 9-1 loss at Edmonton. Now Ruel had three goalies in the doghouse and one in Nova Scotia. Then, against Los Angeles on Jan. 31, Larocque lost again, 8-4, and down he sat for three weeks while Herron, who had been benched for nearly six weeks, and Sevigny split the duties. On Feb. 24, Larocque got another chance, and he played well in a 2-2 tie at St. Louis. Afterward he said, "I have played my last game for the Canadiens. I don't care where they trade me. I just don't want to play for this team anymore." Last week Montreal obliged by sending Larocque to Toronto for Defenseman Robert Picard and a draft choice.
Oddly, as unsettling as the situation has been, it has had little effect on the team's defensive performance. All four goalies have had at least one shutout, and no team has given up fewer goals than Montreal. Ruel seems to have settled on Sevigny as his No. 1 man. His record is 16-0-1 in the Forum this year and 1-2 on the road, and he has an excellent goals-against average of 2.29. But Sevigny has never been tested in the playoffs, and he has the dangerous habit of dropping to his knees to play high shots.
Still, rookie goalies have won Stanley Cups (Dryden did it in 1971), and the fact that Sevigny has the league's best defense in front of him will certainly make his job easier. Brian Engblom and Rod Langway have emerged as top defenders, Larry Robinson is the best, and Serge Savard and Guy Lapointe have been through the wars so many times they can survive by memory. "They won the Cup with that same defense two years ago," says Berenson. "Our team doesn't look down on any club, but we still look up to a few, and the Canadiens are one of them. It takes a while to get over that."
It took two periods to get over it Thursday night. Most of the pressure was on the Canadiens, who had a 20-game unbeaten streak at home. If they had any hope of finishing first in the overall standings, they needed to beat St. Louis. And while Montreal did, indeed, come away with two points in the 4-3 win, the Blues came away with fewer stars in their eyes. That should serve them well if the two teams meet in the playoffs. As Canadien Center Doug Riseborough said afterward, "This was a very big game for us, a very big win. I just wish I felt a little better about it."