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Original Issue

Can the Habs be had?

The team that ruled the NHL for five years is now teetering but not necessarily collapsing

The trouble with winning big is that you have to keep on doing it. The Yankees and the Colts and the Celtics know this, and now the Montreal Canadiens are learning it, too, for in the National Hockey League the word is out: the Canadiens can be had.

The word, however, may be premature.

The measure of the Canadiens' past greatness is the sound and the fury about their showing this year. They are not in the cellar. They are merely teetering in and out of first place. This, for the incomparable Habitants, however, is equivalent to catastrophe. For nine years they have ruled the NHL autocratically, winning the league championship three times in a row, the Stanley Cup playoffs five, and never finishing lower than second.

Sometimes in the old days it seemed to goalies facing the Habs that they were trying to hold back the St. Lawrence River with a teacup. When Boom Boom Geoffrion wasn't slamming power shots almost through the nets, little Henri Richard was tipping goals over their shoelaces or graceful Jean Beliveau was stick-handling and pirouetting through defensemen like a Dick Button with shinguards. At the other end of the rink, the Habs' defensemen Doug Harvey and Tom Johnson would be keeping the enemy honest, while the Montreal goalie, Jacques Plante, was stopping enough shots to win the Vezina Trophy (fewest goals against) five years in a row.

But this year the Canadiens' defense has begun to melt like ice under a hot torch. More pucks have been rammed past Plante than any goalie in the league. Harvey is showing his years (35), and Johnson, who usually starts fast, has slowed considerably. The forwards, always in a friendly fight among each other for the top places in league scoring, have once again made more goals than any other team, but in the process they seem to have forgotten all they ever knew about back-checking and poke-checking. Says Kenny Reardon, vice-president of the club: "We're suffering from an inclination to let George do it when it comes to checking and hard defensive work."

Depending on his mood, Coach Toe Blake puts the blame for the Habs' hard times on 1) poor checking by forwards, 2) the fact that the league has tightened up all around, 3) the demoralizing loss of Maurice (The Rocket) Richard, who retired at the start of the season, and 4) on Plante's use of a face mask. "I never was for that mask," says Toe Blake. "Since Plante has been wearing it I don't think he's been playing as well. Other players take chances. Take the catcher in baseball. You don't see him leave his mask on when he's trying to catch a foul ball. Why should Plante?"

Blake neglects to mention that there is a lot of difference between a foul pop-up and a blue-line slap shot by Bobby Hull streaking at the goal, but Jacques Plante knows it. "The mask gives me confidence," he says. Despite 44 goals scored against him in 13 games, the Canadiens' goalie plans to keep the mask on. Blake will frown, but he will issue no ultimatum. "I'm afraid if he takes it off he may be worse than ever," Blake says.

The real explanation of the problem facing the Canadiens—if hovering around first place can be considered a problem—is probably rooted in an intangible: the absence of The Rocket. Says Blake, with fond memory: "It was always good when he was there. The other team would be so busy covering Rocket we'd be able to break through and score before they knew what had happened. And the players looked up to him."

But life and hockey can both go on without the great Maurice. Most of the knell-sounding for Les Habitants comes from other cities in the league. As Reardon puts it: "Crowds like to see the Canadiens spilled, and when it happens they like to feel it's the beginning of the end." No one in Montreal is seriously upset by the Canadiens' poor showing. The team has slumped before. Says Blake: "There are many advantages to winning, and that's what we still intend to do."