Ever had the feeling you've just witnessed two franchises passing each other in midjourney—one ascending, fresh, eager, excited; the other on the descent, benumbed, exhausted, aching—like skiers on a chair lift at the end of a long day? So it was last week as Scotty Bowman's young Buffalo Sabres humiliated the once-mighty Montreal Canadiens by winning their opening-round confrontation in the NHL playoffs in three straight games.
The Sabres' clinching 4-2 win came on Saturday night in Buffalo's Memorial Auditorium, but the true rump-thumpings took place Wednesday and Thursday in the Montreal Forum, where an unlikely hero named Bob Sauve shut out the ostensibly prepotent Canadiens, the league's second-highest-scoring team in the regular season, 1-0 and 3-0. It was preposterous! A Montreal club that had averaged 4.38 goals per game got whitewashed in its hallowed Forum on consecutive nights. "I've had some weird dreams," said the 27-year-old Sauve (pronounced SOH-vay), who'd had only one shutout in 54 games this season, "but I've never dreamed this."
Said Canadien Coach Bob Berry, "We didn't score because of Sauve and because their whole team played well. We were prepared. I wouldn't do anything differently. We had videotapes, chalk talks, knew their power play, their penalty killing, everything."
The last man to shut out Montreal in two straight postseason games was Glenn Hall of the Chicago Black Hawks. He did it in 1961. The only other goaltender to pull off the feat was Terry Sawchuk of the Detroit Red Wings, in 1952. But before Sauve, no one had ever blanked the Canadiens in consecutive games in Montreal. Indeed, the Canadiens hadn't been held scoreless in one game at home since Gilles Meloche of the Minnesota North Stars beat them 3-0 in April 1980.
For Sauve and the Sabres to whitewash Montreal twice was made more miraculous by the fact that the teams had split their season's series 3-3-2, the Canadiens averaging nearly four goals a game. Montreal had finished the regular schedule with 98 points to Buffalo's 89. Further, the Sabres had ended the season shakily, going 4-7-1 in their last 12 games as Sauve's goals-against average in his final 10 starts soared to 4.25. And two of Buffalo's key defensemen, Phil Housley and Hannu Virta, were 19 and 20 years old, respectively. Conventional wisdom said forwards as fast as Montreal's would forecheck that kind of inexperience to death.
Although he refused to gloat, defeating Montreal was a delicious bit of revenge for Bowman. Four years ago Bowman, who had coached the Canadiens to five Stanley Cups in seven seasons, was in line for the Montreal general manager's job. However, he was snubbed in favor of Irving Grundman, whose background was in bowling alleys. Miffed, Bowman left to become general manager and coach of the Sabres.
The Canadiens have fared poorly since Bowman's departure. This is the third straight year they have lost in the opening round of the playoffs, and just about everyone in Montreal is predicting that Grundman's and Berry's heads will soon be served on a platter. Their successors will find a decimated farm system and a depleted depth chart. Both shortcomings are the result of poor drafting by Grundman and ill-advised deals he made before and during this season. The Canadiens will be in trouble for years.
That wasn't crystal clear, however, until last week. Bowman wanted to avoid a shootout at all costs, so his plan was to slow the tempo as much as possible and to check, check, check. He juggled his lines to keep Craig Ramsay, Buffalo's checker par excellence, opposite Guy Lafleur. In the first period of Game 1, Bowman used nine different line combinations. He did much of his maneuvering before face-offs. When they occurred in the Sabres' defensive zone, Bowman always had two centers on the ice—in case one was thrown out of the circle—including his face-off specialist, Brent Peterson. The period seemed to last forever. Sabre defensemen were falling on the puck along the boards, flipping it out of the rink, anything to disrupt the flow of play.
The plodding pace worked to Buffalo's advantage. Because of their dismal playoff performances in recent years, the Canadiens thought it essential that they start quickly, especially at home, where, shockingly, they have now lost eight of their last 11 postseason games. Montreal's forechecking was unable to get rolling, giving the Sabres' young defensemen an opportunity to get over their playoff jitters. When the Canadiens did break through—they outshot Buffalo 20-10 in the first two periods—Sauve was there to thwart them. Then early in the third period Peterson stuffed a rebound past Montreal Goalie Rick Wamsley for the game's only goal. Over the last 13 minutes, the Canadiens, increasingly frustrated by the Sabres' disciplined checking, got only one shot on goal.
Montreal's offense in Game 1 was positively awesome compared with what it mustered the next night. Buffalo took a 1-0 lead when Dale McCourt scored at 1:47 of the first period off a beautiful feed from Gil Perrault. The boos started about four minutes later. Montreal didn't get off its first shot on goal until 16:55 of the period. Buffalo put the game out of reach by scoring two goals within 37 seconds in the second period.
The second of them was set up by former U.S. Olympian Mike Ramsey as he slid into Wamsley following a dramatic end-to-end rush. Rookie Mal Davis scooped in the rebound to close the scoring for the night. But Ramsey was most valuable when he was back on defense, blocking shots, killing penalties—the Canadiens were 0 for 16 on the power play in the first two games—and jarring Montreal forwards with body checks. Said Bowman, who's not given to handing out accolades, "Ramsey doesn't get the credit he deserves, but he's a great player. You don't win gold medals and beat the Russians by being mediocre."
When the game ended, only 5,000 fans—most of them jeering—were left in the Forum. Larry Robinson, the best Montreal player in the series, was one of the few Canadiens willing to talk about the consecutive shutouts. "Sauve did his job, but I could have stopped the shots we had on him," he said. "We were out-manned everywhere we went. It's tough to put the puck on a teammate's stick when your nose is pushed up against the glass." Added a morose Berry, "I've never seen a team check that well."
Sauve and his teammates were greeted by an earsplitting ovation as they skated onto their home ice on Saturday. Montreal should have known this wasn't going to be its night when the microphone went on the fritz during the singing of O Canada! In the first period Lafleur beat Sauve from point-blank range, only to have the puck blocked by Defenseman Bill Hajt's leg, and Pierre Mondou rapped a shot off the post. The Canadiens' scoreless streak finally ended after 147 minutes, but they needed Buffalo to put the puck in the net for them. At 7:25 of the second period Montreal's Mats Naslund tried to center a pass during a power play, and Hajt, attempting to intercept, deflected it between Sauve's legs. The lead was shortlived: John Van Boxmeer and Lindy Ruff scored to put the Sabres ahead 2-1 with one period remaining.
Fittingly, the Canadiens' last gasp came from two of the stars who had helped Bowman win those five Stanley Cups. With 11:39 to play, Lafleur, who had sneaked onto the ice while Craig Ramsay was on the bench, set up Steve Shutt to tie the game at 2-2. But with four minutes left, Buffalo's Tony McKegney scored the game-winner by roofing a rebound over the sprawled Wamsley. The crowd by now was chanting "Soh-vay! Soh-vay! Soh-vay!" in appreciation of a remarkable series.
When Mike Ramsey found an open net with 25 seconds remaining to clinch the win, he relived a scene that many remember well. Ramsey rolled on the ice in the arms of a teammate, pumping a fist in the air, just as he had done after the U.S. Olympians had beaten the Soviets at Lake Placid. The Canadiens glumly looked on. What they were seeing was a team of the future. What they were remembering was a team of the past.