Someday the young, talented Quebec Nordiques—everybody's pick as the Stanley Cup team of the future—will thank the archrival Montreal Canadiens for the character lesson they were handed last week by the Stanley Cup team of the past. Someday. Maybe. If they don't end up choking on the memory of it.
The Nordiques waltzed into the hallowed Montreal Forum last Thursday with a two-games-to-zip lead and with Les Habitants on the run in the NHL's most eagerly anticipated opening-round playoff series. But after surveying the 22 Stanley Cup banners hanging from the rafters, the Nordiques were outchecked, outhustled and outshot by their supposedly less-skilled opponents. That they were out-scored only 2-1, in overtime, in Game 3 and 3-2 in Game 4 was largely due to the grace and guts of goaltender Ron Hextall, whose spirited play was wasted. Quebec coach Pierre Pagè, furious at the lack of intensity shown by his team, accused some of the Nordiques of "surfing" around center ice. Surfing! Age-old puckster maxim: Teams, even young and talented teams with pretty fleurs-de-lis on their uniforms, do not win playoff games by surfing.
"They're playing like it's the 10th game of the year," Pagè railed. "They have a choice: They can listen to experienced people who have been through it before, or they can live it themselves. But if they don't want to lose, they have to give a lot more than that."
The carnage continued in Game 5 on Monday night with a 5-4 Nordique loss in Quebec that sent the teams back to the Forum for Game 6 with Quebec one game from elimination. "This team's unbelievable, talentwise," says Nordique forward Scott Young, whose four playoff goals were tops on the team through the first five games of the series. "But you can't just rely on talent to win. There's no excuse for not sucking it up."
The Nordiques, it should be remembered, are the youngest team in the league, with an average age of 23.5. They've already come a long way this season, doubling their regular-season point total in one year from 52 to 104, the largest increase in NHL history. This is Quebec's first appearance in postseason play since 1987, and most of its players have never participated in the NHL playoffs before. Heck, on a roster that includes four Russians, a Swede and a Czech, an appreciable number have never seen the NHL playoffs before.
Still, that Pagè should feel compelled to plead for increased effort speaks volumes about the changed nature of this once storied rivalry that in the 1980s was as fierce as any in sports. Something was missing last week in this so-called Battle of Quebec that can be summed up in a single word—enmity.
Oh, how these two teams used to hate each other! The Canadiens and the Nordiques met four times in the playoffs between '82 and '87, with each side winning twice. Some called it hockey, but it was closer to full-scale war, spilling over onto the streets and into the taverns across the province. No Quebecois was able to stand on the sidelines in bemused detachment. Everyone became a fanatic.
Sportswriters from Quebec and Montreal stopped speaking to one another. Carling O'Keefe, which owned the Nordiques, and Molson, which owned the Canadiens, declared beer war on each other and saw their sales affected by the outcome of the series. French separatists embraced the Nordiques; Anglophiles cheered for the Habs. "Those series were highly politicized, blown way out of proportion," says Steve Shutt, who played for the Canadiens from 1972 to '84 and now does radio and TV commentary for the team. "And they were the most brutal, dirty games I've ever played in. It was scary. They took so much out of you physically and emotionally that if you won, it didn't matter if you went any further in the playoffs. The fans cared more about that series than if we won the Cup."
"We had 13 French Canadians, they had 13 French Canadians," says former Nordique coach Michel Bergeron. "And tough players. We had Dale Hunter; they had Chris Nilan. These guys would always make something happen if they were behind by a couple of goals."
Hockey fans understand what those code words mean, particularly when linked to the likes of Hunter and Nilan: blood on the ice, preferably someone else's. "Now the breweries, Molson and O'Keefe, have merged," laments Bergeron, a radio talk-show host in Montreal. "Most of the people in the province, even Montreal fans, they're happy for Quebec because it's been so long since they've been in the playoffs. Both teams want to play a real clean series. I don't think the rivalry will ever be the same as it was."
Indeed, through the first five games, these kinder, gentler Nordiques and Canadiens did not engage in a fistfight, and sticks, by and large, remained down. One of the few cheap shots—an overtime slash to the forearm of Brian Bellows by Quebec defenseman Curtis Leschyshyn—led to the winning goal on a power play in Game 3. "The reporters would like it to get nasty so they'd have more to write about," Bellows said afterward. "But it hasn't been a nasty series."
Quebec, which had a better record on the road than at home this season, took the opening two games in Le Colisèe but needed some crucial mistakes by Canadien goaltender Patrick Roy to do so. Employing a rope-a-dope offense—sitting back, then counterattacking—the Canadiens led 2-0 in Game 1 with less than three minutes left. Then Montreal winger Gilbert Dionne gave the Nordiques fresh legs when he took a needless elbowing penalty. Pagè pulled Hextall to give the Nordiques a two-man advantage, and with their net open, Quebec defied the odds to score twice in the last minute and a half (the second was a softie through Roy's legs) to send the game into overtime. Young scored the game-winner on a wraparound that bounced in off Roy.
Game 2 was all Quebec as the Nordiques scored three goals in the opening period—two by Young, who was the beneficiary of another matador job by Roy—then bottled up the Canadiens the rest of the way, coasting to a 4-1 win. This time it was Montreal that provided the empty effort. "If Patrick Roy lets in a bad goal, does that mean we stop playing?" Canadien coach Jacques Demers inquired during the postgame press conference.
In Montreal the hometown fans had pretty much written off the Habs. With a 6-9 record over the last month of the season. Demers's charges had limped into the playoffs. They had allowed almost four goals a game over that 15-game stretch, which saw them fall from first to third in the Adams Division. Demers, who a few weeks before had banned all newspapers (except USA Today) from the Montreal dressing room because he believed critical press reports were hurting his team, now found himself lampooned on a daily basis by Montreal's La Presse. A full-page caricature on April 21 depicted Demers as a downcast Napoleon, retreating to Montreal after the back-to-back drubbings in Quebec. The next day Pagè was drawn coming into town on a steamroller, wearing a Viking helmet, flattening Canadiens who fled in terror before the barbarians at their gates.
Unfortunately for Nordique fans, Pagè's helmeted hoards played more like they were waging the battle of Sesame Street than the Battle of Quebec after they arrived in Montreal. The most vicious territorial struggle of Game 3 came during the pregame warmup, when Montreal's Mario Roberge stood his ground over the center-ice dot. It seems the superstitious Hextall must skate over the aforementioned dot before every game. Twice as Hextall approached it, Roberge slashed him on the pads. Jawboning ensued. Threats were made. Then Roberge was jostled by Quebec's Owen Nolan—his hardest hit of the night. In the old days, a bench-clearing brawl would have erupted, and 600 minutes in penalties would have been assessed. Not in the '90s. Hextall touched his dot, the prospective combatants dispersed to their sandboxes, and the third game was able to begin.
After the teams exchanged goals, both Roy and Hextall were spectacular, but it was Hextall who endured more pressure. "The first two games we just played too defensively," Canadien forward Kirk Muller said after Game 3. "We decided to go after them more."
The game went into OT, where Hextall stoned the Canadiens from in close time after time. In the first 10 minutes of overtime, the Canadiens had 12 shots on net from 10 different players, not including a goal that was disallowed because Stephan Lebeau batted it in with a high stick. Finally, on their 50th shot of the game, the Canadiens got their second goal—a lucky one that bounced in off Nordique defenseman Alexei Gusarov's skate after Hextall had kicked out a shot by Vincent Damphousse. Montreal, trailing two games to one, was back in the series.
Pagè hoped his players at that point would take their cue from Montreal. "People will do things at this time of year that they won't do the rest of the year," he said. "Some of our guys don't realize how far they can push themselves."
But in Game 4 the unheralded Montreal forwards continued to carry the play, buzzing around the puck, mucking and grinding in the corners, while the flashier Nordiques—Mats Sundin, Martin Rucinsky, Valeri Kamensky, Joe Sakic—carved attractive half-moons in the ice, hoping to make pretty plays. Yet despite being outshot by the Canadiens 30-15 in the first two periods, the Nordiques, thanks to Hextall, found themselves tied 2—all. Sixty-seven seconds into the final frame, however, Benoit Brunet picked up a rebound and, with Hextall fallen, put the game-winner in the open net. Said Muller, "Hextall's been coming up big, but our attitude is, Don't get frustrated, keep shooting. If you keep working, hopefully you get a break."
In the Nordique dressing room, the meaning of playoff hockey was just beginning to sink in. "We've been relying on Ron way too much," said Young, who had scored Quebec's first goal in Game 4. "Talented guys can muck and grind too. Talented guys can hit guys, pin them to the boards, dump the puck out, finish their checks. If they force us to play that way, that's the way we have to play. It really humbles you, going up two-zero, then losing two straight."
It's a lesson Pagè hopes his Nordiques don't forget.