Finally—at last!—the puck squirted free along the boards, and New York wing Mike Bossy found himself alone, clear of the smothering presence of Montreal wing Bob Gainey, who had held Bossy to one harmless shot on goal as Montreal won the first two games of the Stanley Cup semifinal series between the Islanders and the Canadiens, otherwise known as the Dueling Dynasties. Bossy skated in unimpeded and fired a short-side shot past goalie Steve Penney, the sensation of the playoffs thus far, giving the Islanders a 3-0 lead in what became a 5-2 win last Saturday night on Long Island in Game 3 of their best-of-seven series.
"We have too much will to survive to lay down when we're behind two games to none," Bossy said afterward, echoing the sentiments of his undaunted but battered teammates. "Nobody in this room thought that Penney was invincible."
The rookie Penney was just one of the reasons the resurgent Habs—better known as the Hab Nots in the regular season when they had a 35-40-5 record, their worst finish in 33 years—shocked the Islanders by taking the first two games by scores of 3-0 and 4-2 in the Montreal Forum. In winning 18 consecutive playoff series and four straight Cups, the Islanders had never fallen behind any team by more than one game. Canadien center Guy Carbonneau was destroying Bryan Trottier on face-offs and buzzing about the ice like another Henri Richard; former All-Star defenseman Larry Robinson was playing his best hockey since 1979, when the Canadiens won the last of their four straight Cups; and defenseman Rick Green, after missing all but seven games of the regular season with wrist and rib injuries, was back in the lineup playing the defense of his life. Most troubling to the Islanders, however, was their own moribund play, which at times in their pursuit of a record-tying fifth consecutive Cup has resembled a punch-drunk fighter who stays afoot for no other reason than that he has forgotten how to fall down.
The buildup to this unlikely Canadien-Islander series began last December during a luncheon for the surviving members of the 1956-60 Montreal teams that won five straight Cups. Les anciens Canadiens, they called themselves—players like Jean Béliveau, Maurice Richard, Jacques Plante, Doug Harvey and Dickie Moore. Moore made a speech. He said that all the individual records of les anciens Canadiens either had been, or would be, broken. But there was one team record he thought would last—the five Cups. He asked the current Canadiens to do them a favor and preserve it. Beat the damn Islanders! It was a thought that the young guys could mull over in their dressing room every time they looked up at the row of portraits of all the Montreal hall-of-famers, beneath which is the team motto, taken from In Flanders Fields. TO YOU FROM FAILING HANDS WE THROW THE TORCH, BE YOURS TO HOLD IT HIGH.
After floundering through the regular season, the Canadiens adopted new coach Jacques Lemaire's patient, disciplined system and stunned Boston and Quebec in the first two rounds of the playoffs, prompting Robinson to bring no less than Sir Winston Churchill into the fray on the eve of the Islanders series. "This, as Churchill would say, is the end of the beginning," said Robinson. "Now we go into the big leagues."
When hockey players start quoting statesmen, there are higher forces at work, and that is just the way the Canadiens played in their 3-0 win on Tuesday. Employing a 1-2-2 forechecking system, the Habs repeatedly forced the Islanders to dump the puck into the offensive zone, then broke out with relative ease against New York's listless fore-checkers. The Canadiens got a first-period goal from Carbonneau, and third-period scores by Mats Naslund and Steve Shutt. It was Penney's third shutout of the playoffs, one shy of the NHL record (held by six goalies)—not bad for a guy with only four NHL games to his credit before the playoffs. The next day, cabbies all over Montreal were cracking that it was the first time they had seen a Penney worth a million.
For his part, Islander coach Al Arbour thought his team wasn't worth a plugged nickel. He publicly criticized Trottier—who has been playing miserably in the playoffs—for the first time in memory, saying Carbonneau "ate him up alive on the face-offs" (Carbonneau 15, Trottier 7) and that their five-day layoff after ousting Washington in five games had made the champs "soft and fat."
The Islanders got the message and came out storming in Game 2, testing Penney with three tough shots in the opening 36 seconds and then getting in one more blast before the game was a minute old. But Penney turned them away, and Montreal quickly regained its composure, allowing only 12 additional shots—one every five minutes—the rest of the way. When Pierre Mondou scored on a three-on-one at 7:46 of the first period, it was the 10th time in 11 playoff games that the Canadiens had made the first goal. "We have a good habit there," said Naslund, the Habs' leading scorer in the playoffs (6-7-13), who made the score 4-2 early in the third period on a power-play goal after Islander defenseman Denis Potvin had been called for unsportsmanlike conduct. Potvin, confused by linesman Swede Knox's hand signals during an icing call, threw up his arms in disgust. In so doing he inadvertently let go of his stick and it grazed Knox on the chest.
The game ended with the unseemly spectacle of Canadien reserve goalie Richard Sevigny having his face clawed and hair pulled by New York goalie Billy Smith, who, seconds earlier had made a kamikaze charge from 60 feet toward Green. "It looked like anyone in his way was going to get a chop," Green said later. "He had his stick held out like a spear." The brawl was set off when New York's John Tonelli pitchforked Gainey in the belly in the final three seconds of play as they skated down the ice. "I was just taking the guy out," Tonelli explained. "No message intended."
Arbour, seething, came into the press conference threatening to "turn his guys loose" and claiming that "even the league is pulling for Montreal." It's standard procedure for Arbour to excoriate the officiating at least once in a series, although he usually has the good taste to wait until after an Islander win. In the New York dressing room Bob Nystrom suggested that the refs should be "tested for drugs," and Trottier sympathetically explained that he wouldn't want to be a ref in the Forum because "when French people get mad, they go crazy." (For the record, Smith isn't French.)
The four-time champs were behaving like chumps. More to the point, they were playing that way. They were frustrated by the combination of Montreal's patient checking game, Penney's goal-tending and the battles for loose pucks along the boards, most of which they lost. Furthermore, Bob Bourne (knee) and Stefan Persson (shoulder) had been lost for the series in Game 2, joining Pat La-Fontaine and Dave Langevin on the disabled list. So, the Islanders backs were not only up, but they were also to the wall for Game 3.
Which is exactly when they do their best. Playing furiously in the opening minutes, the Islanders proceeded to forecheck Robinson, the heart of the Canadiens, to complete distraction in the first two periods, building up a 5-0 lead halfway through the game and driving Penney to the bench. "When a guy like Robinson has a game like that it affects the whole team," said Lemaire of Robinson's first bad game of the playoffs. Langevin surprisingly returned to the lineup and gave New York needed muscle. Arbour also split up usually inseparable linemates Bossy and Trottier in order to spur them into productivity. "We proved we can play well, too," said Tonelli, "that we can dominate like they did."
It was a convincing win. "We needed that one," said Brent Sutter with a relieved smile. "Now we need another one. Then another one. And another one." It's a tall order against a team as defensively sound as the Canadiens, assuming Robinson returns to form. "It's the best I've seen him play in five years in the league," said Duane Sutter of Robinson. Plus, Les Habitants feel they have a greater force on their side than sheer talent. Tradition. Says Carbonneau, "For four years the torch has been dead, and I've been sitting at my locker watching all those faces on the wall. It wasn't Dickie Moore talking to us that time in December. It was the Montreal Canadien players—all of them. Maybe we won't be known as the great Montreal team of 1984 because of what we did in the season with our losing record. But we'll be known as the team that stopped the Islanders for les anciens Canadiens."
If they do, Robinson will be able to quote from a certain statesman again, and call it their finest hour.