The Habs Have A Hot One

With goalie Patrick Roy stopping the puck, Montreal ousted the Rangers and just might win the Stanley Cup
May 18, 1986

Roo-AH! Roo-AH! they chanted, a throng of 18,076 giddy Montrealers, on their feet, dutifully mispronouncing the name of the latest Canadiens hero at the bidding of the Forum message board. Roo-AH! Roo-AH! they cheered, shaking the rafters of the tradition-steeped arena as they'd not been shaken since the halcyon days of Guy Lafleur. Never mind that your great-Aunt Millie could have tended the Montreal goal in the final 20 minutes of Friday night's Wales Conference championship-clinching 3-1 win over the New York Rangers, giving the Canadiens the unexpectedly one-sided series four games to one. Or that the hero of the hour, goalie Patrick Roy, in fact pronounces his name like the French word roi, meaning king, which sounds something like hhrrhhoo-AH! speeded up from 45 to 78 rpm. This tribute to the 20-year-old Roy was for service beyond the call of a single period or a single game. It was for five weeks and 15 playoff games of the best darn goaltending the Canadiens have ever seen.

Roy's postseason goals-against average was a meager 1.70, and he had yet to allow more than three goals in a game while leading Montreal past Boston, Hartford, and now the Rangers, into the championship series for the first time since 1979 and onto the doorstep of the Canadiens' 23rd Stanley Cup. Roo-AH! Roo-AH! As Roy raised his arms in triumph, his teammates hugged and back-slapped and carried on like a bunch of kids, which, save for two old and estimable war-horses, they pretty much are.

Eight rookies, not counting first-year coach Jean Perron, led the Canadiens past the plucky Rangers, who managed to put only nine goals behind Roy in the five-game wipeout. "It's impossible to win here for some reason," said Ranger forward Pierre Larouche, a former Canadien who, with just two assists, was a virtual no-show in the series. "It was like they had more than five men on the ice. It must be the ghosts of the Rocket and Lafleur."

More like the ghosts of Larry Robinson, 34, and Bob Gainey, 32, who have been skating as they did in their prime—which in Robinson's case was at least five seasons ago. The only two holdovers from the powerhouse Canadiens teams that won four straight Stanley Cups from 1975 to 1979 (Mario Tremblay would have been a third, but he has missed the playoffs with a broken collarbone), Robinson and Gainey have waged a two-man assault on the notion that post-30 in the NHL means postmortem. "It makes you proud to come this far with eight rookies," says Montreal G.M. Serge Savard, whose draft choices of the past three years—Roy, Claude Lemieux (he of the two overtime goals, including the seventh-game winner to beat the Whalers) and Stephane Richer—are suddenly bearing fruit. "But the veterans are the ones who have carried the club. When the rookies see Robinson and Gainey giving all that they have at their age, they think, 'Yes, I can, too.' "

Call it the Henri Richard syndrome: rejuvenation through Cup fever. "When you know you don't have as many races ahead as the ones you've already run, you're playing for one more chance at the Cup," says Gainey, who checked Larouche into a rut this series, proving he is still the best defensive forward in the league. "These Canadiens are not a dominating team like we were in the '70s. We're a team with limits. But we stay within those limits and have created the attitude that we never want to lose a game easily."

Translation: Mind your own end first. Montreal may have a new coach—Perron was Jacques Lemaire's assistant last season—but they are playing under the same old philosophy. Defense. The Canadiens smother a team with it. They suffocate a crowd. They strangle the TV ratings. If you don't get your jollies from watching a man being tied up in front, bring a good book to the game, chéri, you're in for a long, drowsy night. The Flying Frenchmen? Save that for another era. The only flying this team does is to its road games. The back-checking Frenchmen, the fore-checking Swedes, the disciplined Yanks is more like it. And, is it dull. Nos glorieux, reduced to the rouge, bleu et blecchh.

But, hey, it works. So what if Montreal doctors these days are prescribing two aspirin and a Canadien playoff game for minor cases of la grippe! They are winning. Somehow. How weak is the Canadiens' offense? In their 15 postseason games they have mustered only 41 goals—four of them while playing short-handed—a scoring average of only 2.73 per game. By any standards—playoffs, peewees, squirts—that is pathetic. Teams playing Montreal need not bother dressing a checking line—the Canadiens don't have a goal-scoring unit worth checking. Not one of the top 15 scorers in the playoffs is a Canadien.

But since when were hockey games graded for style points? Montreal is 11-4 playing it close to the vest, and if you have a goalie who feels a 2-1 lead is a landslide, why not lull folks to sleep? That was exactly what happened in Game 1 of the Rangers series, an unassuming contest in which all the scoring came in the second period—Gainey got the game-winner—and the tone for the series was set. Namely, get the early lead, then hold on, especially to that guy in the slot.

It was thought that the Canadiens and Rangers would match up pretty well. Neither team had shown much in the regular season—the Rangers were under .500 for the year and the Canadiens failed to break even over the last 40 games—but had hit their stride for the playoffs. The Rangers were the third-best defensive team in the NHL, the Canadiens fourth-best, and both prided themselves on their patience. One major difference: The Montreal power play was the league's third-best, scoring at a 25.4% clip. The Rangers were 17th. Ultimately, that difference would prove to be the Blueshirts' undoing.

Game 2 was a laugher, a 6-2 Canadien win that sent the series on to New York. Asked if young Roy was as impressive as he seemed, Ranger forward Wilf Paiement shrugged. "He's only getting 20 shots a game. Let's get 30 to 40 shots and we'll see how great he is."

As it turned out, he held up under an even worse attack. The Rangers came out flying in Game 3 in Madison Square Garden, but Roy was phenomenal, turning back 44 of 47 shots to keep Montreal in the game. Three times the Rangers went ahead by a goal, and three times the Canadiens caught up—Bobby Smith tying the score at 3-3 with 2:04 left, on a power-play goal. The Rangers kept coming. For 9½ minutes of the overtime it was all New York as the Rangers blasted 13 shots at Roy without success. Then, suddenly, the Canadiens busted out two-on-none, beneficiaries of a freak collision between Ranger defenseman James Patrick and linesman Ray Scapinello. The 20-year-old Lemieux—who is no relation to Pittsburgh star Mario but is the Canadiens' leading goal scorer in the playoffs—took the feed from Mike McPhee and buried it, giving the Canadiens a 3-0 lead and leaving the Rangers wagging their heads, wondering what they had to do to solve the riddle of Roy. From the third period on, the Rangers had outshot the Canadiens 25-7, but had been outscored 3-1. "That's the best goaltending we've had since I've been here," said Robinson afterward, a shocking endorsement, considering that Robinson had played six years with Hall of Famer Ken Dryden.

But Gainey concurred. "Ken kept us in a lot of games for the first period, which allowed us to regroup," said the Canadiens' captain. "Roy was under a barrage from the opening face-off, and it never let up. I've never seen a goalie play a game like that in the playoffs."

Asked afterward what it felt like, facing 47 shots, Roy beamed and said, "Last year I face 47 shots every game, only all the time we lose."

That was while playing for the Granby Bisons of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, who were so bad that Roy's goals-against average in 44 games was a beefy 5.55. And he was playing well. So well, in fact, that the third-place Sherbrooke Canadiens of the American Hockey League called him up for last year's playoffs, and Roy led them to the Calder Cup—the AHL's top prize—with a 2.89 goals-against average. Largely on the basis of that showing, Roy, a native of Quebec City, started this season in Montreal, posting a 23-19-3 record and a respectable 3.30 goals-against average during the regular schedule.

Roy's style is hardly classic. Like many tall goalies—he is 6 feet and a rather scrawny 165 pounds—Roy spends a lot of his time on his knees, stopping low shots by fanning out his pads in a butterfly. His nickname in French, Casseau, defies literal translation, but it roughly means that Roy, when it comes to eating, is a human garbage pail. Burgers, fries, potato chips—reflex food, great for goalies. Now you see it, now you don't.

"He's a great puck stopper," says Ranger assistant coach Jack Birch, "but technically he's got some flaws. In particular, he needs work on his angles and his puck-handling ability." One of the Rangers' strategies, then, was to throw the puck into the Montreal zone and hope to force Roy to misplay it.

It worked in Game 4, a 2-0 Rangers shutout that, if nothing else, gave New Yorkers one last chance to salute their own splendid goalie, John Vanbiesbrouck, for his near miraculous work in the playoffs. Vanbiesbrouck's was the only artistry to be seen on this night. The first goal of the game came when Roy meandered behind his net to play a Ranger dump-in, inadvertently deflecting the puck out front, where New York's Bob Brooke backhanded it into the empty net. So much for the offense. Things went downhill from there. The game became chippy, but it was unclear whether the brawling started first in the stands and then spread to the ice, or vice versa. The Garden fans were in rare form all evening, distinguishing themselves early by booing throughout the playing of the Canadian national anthem, then hurling some wadded-up paper at at Roy while he stood tending the Montreal goal. Now that the Rangers have been eliminated, the Garden cuckoos presumably will migrate to their summer nesting grounds, in flocks of 50,000 or more, at Yankee Stadium.

"I hope we finish this series on Friday so we don't have to come back to this zoo," said Canadien defenseman Craig Ludwig.

Which, of course, they did. Good thing, too—the Forum fans were beginning to pick up bad habits. "This never happened before—never," lamented Ca-mil Desroches, a Forum official, before the start of Game 5, as—sacré bleu!—the normally polite Montreal fans lustily booed The Star-Spangled Banner in revenge for their anthem's treatment in New York. The Rangers took an early 1-0 lead in the game, scoring on a tip-in by Tomas Sandstrom, but Montreal quickly overcame the deficit with goals by Lemieux—the rookie's ninth of the playoffs—and Smith, both coming on power plays. For the series, the Canadiens' power play clicked for five goals in 24 chances; the Rangers scored just twice out of 23.

The score stood 2-1 going into the third period, and the Rangers figured to come out scrambling for their lives. But the Canadiens wouldn't let them. New York could barely get the puck out of its zone, never mind mount a serious attack. In the final 20 minutes of their season—and this shows just how formidable the Montreal defense can be—the Rangers had only two shots on goal, and the second didn't come until the 19-minute mark, after Gainey had pounced on a rebound to salt away the 3-1 win. Two lousy shots. If ever a hockey team had thrown up its collective hands to shout ¬°No màs! it was the Rangers in the third period. Coach Ted Sator never even bothered to pull Vanbiesbrouck at the end. He was happy to say they had been close.

Afterward, in the Montreal dressing room, Robinson was asked how a team with so many rookies could play with such defensive composure. "I've been hearing about our rookies all series," he said with an edge to his voice. "I was a rookie, too, once. That isn't an excuse to make a mistake. When I came here, I wasn't looking for Frank Mahovlich or Serge Savard or Guy Lapointe to play for me. I worked my butt off to prove to them that I belonged up here, that I could do the job myself. It's the same way with these guys. We're all just hockey players. We're all in this together."

It says it right there in the dressing room, in big bold letters up next to the photos of all the past greats, the Richards and Drydens and Beliveaus. You've probably heard the Canadiens' motto before, but it's a good motto and bears repeating: TO YOU FROM FAILING HANDS WE THROW THE TORCH, BE YOURS TO HOLD IT HIGH.

This young and young-at-heart crew of Canadiens seems capable of doing exactly that.

PHOTOGEORGE TIEDEMANNRoy's reflexes earned him nothing but raves from his teammates Robinson and Gainey. PHOTOHEINZ KLUETMEIERRoy's goals-against average is only 1.70. PHOTOHEINZ KLUETMEIERLemieux was mugged here by New York's James Patrick but twice scored game-winners. PHOTOANTHONY NESTEGainey (23) has been going great guns; he has four playoff goals and five assists. PHOTODAVID E. KLUTHORobinson, now in his 14th season with the Canadiens, is still a center of affection.