No matter what happens in the rest of the Stanley Cup playoffs, it's difficult to imagine a more startling and uplifting series than Edmonton's opening-round three-game sweep of Montreal. The rout came to an end Saturday night in Edmonton, where the Oilers won 6-2. The series was inspiring not just to Edmonton's players and fans, who only two years ago were treated by the NHL establishment as leprous stepchildren from the WHA, but also to all who enjoy seeing tradition get its cage rattled by unbridled youthful exuberance.
New blood! Oh how the NHL needed it. Led by the 20-year-old Wunderkind, Center Wayne Gretzky, the Oilers, 14th in the regular-season standings, outworked, outskated and outthought a Montreal team that had won four of the last five Stanley Cups and had finished an onrushing third in the league this season. Seven Oilers had never even been in the playoffs before, and six were still young enough to play junior hockey. A group of kids, really, whipping the likes of Guy Lafleur, Larry Robinson and Serge Savard. Not just beating them—and this is what was hardest to absorb—but making the Canadiens quit. They forced this veteran, dynastic team not only to its knees, but also onto its back.
"Do you think anyone in the NHL believes this?" Gretzky said after Edmonton's second straight win in the Montreal Forum and the one that sent the Canadiens into progressive rigor mortis. Gretzky, who finished the series with three goals and eight assists, didn't quite believe it himself. He was wearing his Peter Pan grin and throwing winks around the locker room as if, aw shucks (wink), the whole thing had just been luck. He looked more like a kid who had just gotten a hole in one off a topped three-wood than the magician whose sleight of puck had made shambles of what little game plan Montreal had. Gretzky's domination was so complete that when he was on the ice and the teams were even-strength, Edmonton outscored Montreal 11-0.
Physically, the Canadiens were healthier than they had been all year. But mentally they were rotten-ripe, too long together, having spent too many years depending on Lafleur, their forward extraordinaire, to score the impossible goal when they needed it most. But this time Lafleur failed them. They looked to him, and Lafleur, feeling that Montreal Coach Claude Ruel had failed him, looked to the exits. "I don't know if he was sick or not," said Edmonton's 19-year-old defenseman, Paul Coffey, who scored a goal in every game. "But that sure wasn't the Lafleur I used to watch on television."
April 20, 1981
Because the Canadiens were such prohibitive favorites, the series was billed as little more than a Gretzky vs. Lafleur exhibition. My star's better than your star. Montreal Goaltender Richard Sevigny predicted that "Lafleur will put Gretzky in his back pocket." But as the headline in Montreal's La Presse read following the Oilers' 6-3 win in Game 1: GRETZKY MET TOUT LE CANADIEN DANS SA POCHE. Gretzky was on the ice for all the Edmonton goals and assisted on five of them. After the last one, he skated by Sevigny, patting himself in the vicinity of where his back pocket would be.
But the key play of the game—indeed, of the entire series—was not made by Gretzky but by Left Wing Dave Hunter, who hammered Lafleur with a clean body check early in the first period. After that, Lafleur did one of the all-time great disappearing acts, and Oiler Coach Glen Sather made certain that Hunter was on the ice every time The Flower was. Sather had told his players that if they could take it to Montreal for the opening 30 minutes of the first game, the Forum crowd would get on the home team. Sure enough, when Gretzky picked up his third assist late in the first period and Edmonton took a 3-1 lead, the crowd began to cheer him and jeer at the Canadiens.
Montreal was obviously unprepared. While Sather had his Oilers spend hours studying films of the Canadiens—how they come up the ice on the power play, how they break out of the zone, how Sevigny drops to his knees on shots from all angles and distances—Montreal Coach Claude Ruel got his team ready by feuding publicly with Defenseman Guy Lapointe, who complained bitterly of too little ice-time. "I wouldn't hesitate to say there were 10 guys on our team that Montreal knew nothing about," said Oiler Assistant Coach Billy Harris. Although, as the home coach, Ruel made the last line changes, he failed to use this prerogative to the Canadiens' advantage. It was one of the most miserable coaching exhibitions in the long history of miserable NHL coaching. All night long Ruel threw Lafleur out against Hunter and in the last two periods kept his best defensive center, Doug Jarvis, on the bench as Gretzky waltzed about the ice.
"Sure he's great; he will be the player of the '80s," Lafleur said of Gretzky the morning after the first game. "If you let him skate, he can do anything. But if you take the man, check him, it will slow him down like they did to me last night."
On the afternoon of Game 2, Savard went into Ruel's office and suggested that because the Oilers' strategy was obviously to intimidate Lafleur, the Canadiens should respond in kind. He proposed that Ruel move Robinson up to left wing to play with Lafleur and Chris Nilan, Montreal's toughest forward, to show that the Canadiens meant business. Not only did Ruel disregard his captain's suggestion, he didn't even dress Nilan.
Fortunately for the Oilers, Sather dressed a 21-year-old goaltender named Andy Moog (pronounced Moag), who had only seven games of NHL experience before starting the playoff opener. Moog is short and dumpling like and he looks like a choirboy. The way he plays is another matter, for he combines the butterfly style of a Tony Esposito with the amazing hands and rebound control of a Ken Dryden. Still, it was a shocker when Sather started him in place of veteran Gary Edwards.
After his steady performance in Game 1, Moog was superb in Game 2, turning aside 40 of 41 shots, controlling rebounds and keeping the Canadiens from delivering the early KO they so desperately sought. Instead, it was Edmonton that broke on top; five minutes into the first period, Coffey snapped a long shot over Sevigny. It was a big goal, sapping Montreal's momentum and giving the young Oilers some breathing room. In the second period the teams traded goals, and then, late in the third, Gretzky picked up a loose puck and sent Jari Kurri in alone. Kurri, too, beat Sevigny up high, and Edmonton had a 3-1 win.
That, in effect, was the series. Even the Forum fans knew it. They also were uplifted by the exuberant Oilers. Sick and tired of the malaise that had slowed the Canadiens for most of the season and certainly in this series, they rose to applaud the Edmonton team as it mobbed Moog at center ice. Yes, the fans were saying, that is how the game should be played.
It was a spiritless Montreal team that arrived in Edmonton for the third game, a club that had quit on its coach and was playing in awe of the irrepressible Gretzky. "All we've been doing is panicking when Gretzky's on the ice," said Center Keith Acton.
Gretzky scored three of the Oilers six goals in Game 3. Trailing 4-2 going into the third period, the Canadiens couldn't even muster a death kick. Edmonton, meanwhile, was skating, working, checking—and yapping. Having fun. Telling the Montreal players to get into the game. Come on, guys, get with it! "We didn't show them any respect," said Oiler Defenseman Kevin Lowe, 22, who grew up in Montreal and had idolized Robinson as a youth. "Near the end I felt bad about all the abuse we were giving them. But you just can't let them get started."
They never did. Lafleur, who finally got an assist in the finale, was more upset, hurt and shaken afterward than anyone could ever remember having seen him. "I'm not bionic," he said. "Hockey sticks hurt me, too." No màs. He'd had enough. So had all the Canadiens. Enough of a 14th-place team of former WHA kids who simply refused to be awed by the Canadiens' mystique. As Montreal Center Doug Risebrough told Sather when the victorious coach came over to offer condolences, "You certainly made believers out of us, Slatsy."
Youth can do that sometimes.