In the strange and wonderful Stanley Cup playoffs perhaps nothing will prove to be more surprising than Minnesota's steadfast refusal to roll over and play dead for the Montreal Canadiens. Montreal's opening seven-game triumph over defending champion Boston was electrifying enough. That the Canadiens then were extended to six games by the North Stars, fourth-place finishers in an expansion division that had never before won a single playoff game from an East team, was unreal. But it has been that kind of spring in hockey: a team wins big and then loses the next game so miserably that it seems to be another club entirely.
Consider the North Stars, down 3-2 to Montreal last week but, on the eve of what proved to be the final game, behaving as if the mighty Canadiens were in trouble. Which they very nearly were.
Although they were only one defeat away from a four-month vacation without pay, the Stars were loose. Bill Goldsworthy and Jean-Paul Parise were off in a playroom trying to master the game of Ping-Pong so they could challenge the Chinese. Bobby Rousseau and Jude Drouin were at a pool table giving poor imitations of Minnesota Fats. Goalie Gump Worsley was on the phone, as usual, and Lou Nanne was thinking about a moneymaking scheme—green hockey pucks.
"Worried?" said Rousseau. "Not us. I'd say the Canadiens are the team that's worried right now. I don't believe the Canadiens thought too much about the North Stars before this series began. Now I kind of think they know we are not a bunch of pushovers."
The Canadiens had routed Minnesota 7-2 in the first game, but then, pow! In the second game Minnesota chased the host team right out of the Forum and onto St. Catherine's Street, winning 6-3. The Canadiens, however, recovered to take the next game by the same score at Bloomington, Minn., after which the North Stars retaliated by winning 5-2. It was enough to shake a Habitant's faith in the truth he learned at his mother's knee: mortgage the maison on Montreal in the playoffs. "None of us realized they were that good," said Canadien Forward Peter Mahovlich.
Rousseau, who played with Montreal for nine years before moving to Minnesota this season, attempted an explanation of the abrupt turnabouts. "Although hockey basically is a team game," Rousseau said, "it is a game that is won by individuals. If one of our players gives 10% more some game and one of their players gives 10% less, then that's a 20% difference and just enough to win a game instead of losing it." What makes a player give 10% more or less in a game? "Tradition, pride, insecurity, emotion and greed," Rousseau said.
Before the fifth game back at the Forum last Tuesday night, the Canadiens suddenly had new feelings about the troublesome young expansionists. "Now the pressure is on us," said Henri Richard. "I wasn't nervous at any time during the Boston series. Even in the seventh game I wasn't nervous because if we lost, at least we were supposed to lose. Against the North Stars it has turned around. We are the ones under pressure."
Richard started Montreal to a 6-1 victory that night when, before a face-off, he directed Mahovlich to stand at a certain spot to the right of Minnesota Goalie Cesare Maniago. Richard won the draw, deftly rolled the puck onto Mahovlich's stick, and Peter scored instantly. "I was shaking all night," Richard said, "Maybe it didn't show, but I was."
Still, the North Stars were not dead yet, and when they skated onto the ice at the Met back in Bloomington for the sixth game Thursday night, it sounded as though all Minnesota was in the stands. The Canadiens executed a neat tactical maneuver by appearing on ice at the same instant, thereby sparing themselves a round of standing boos.
The game was a rouser, and with two minutes to play, with Montreal leading 3-2, the message board suddenly flashed: NORTH STARS ARE THE GREATEST ANYWHERE. The Met crowd, easily the noisiest in hockey, stood and proved it for three minutes as debris was cleared from the ice. Then, with 1:46 to play, Maniago left his cage for a sixth attacker.
But the North Stars could not penetrate the Canadiens' defense. The seconds ticked away. Three...two...one. Hold it! The puck was in the net behind Ken Dryden. Ted Hampson had scored. The North Stars were charging onto the ice—deliriously waving their sticks. They had tied it up. The fans were standing and hugging each other. Wait! The green light was on—not the red light. The green light signals the end of a game—and the red light cannot be illuminated after the green light has flashed on. "No goal, no goal," said Referee Bill Friday, waving his hands. The North Stars protested for a moment, then slowly skated over to congratulate the Canadiens.
"Minnesota gave us a tougher series than the Bruins," declared Sam Pollock, the general manager of the Canadiens. Actually, Pollock had a tougher series than the players; a non-flyer, he had driven the 1,250 miles between Montreal and Bloomington four times.
Most of the Canadiens privately were cheering for Chicago rather than New York in that other seesaw semifinal series, because they like the playing facilities of Chicago Stadium better than Madison Square Garden's. "The Chicago ice is very smooth—almost as smooth as the Minnesota ice, which is the smoothest in the NHL," says Montreal Defenseman J. C. Tremblay. "When you shoot the puck against the boards in Chicago," says Terry Harper, another defenseman, "it always comes out the same way."
The Montreal players do not like the New York ice because, as Peter Mahovlich says, "It's too soft, and when you're big and fat like me you tend to sink into it." They don't like the Garden boards, either, claiming that unevenness behind the goals occasionally sends the puck out in front of the net when normally it would stay behind.
And what about the Montreal ice? "It used to be the best in the league," says Tremblay, "but now it's too bumpy. It's very hard to make a good, flat pass on the Forum ice these days. You get chippy, bumpy ice when you hose down the surface the afternoon of a game. They do that all the time in Boston, and now they've been doing it at the Forum, too." And what about the Montreal boards? "They're pretty dead," Harper says, "and the puck won't go around too well because they're sort of squared in the corners."
Conditions aside, one thing that has irritated Montreal throughout the playoffs has been talk about "those lucky Canadiens" and "that lucky Dryden." "When you work hard," says Jean Beliveau, "you get the luck. When you say you don't have any luck, you are saying you did not work."
Dryden says luck, particularly for a goaltender, is predicated upon skill. "They say I'm lucky if I stop a screen shot or a deflection, but that's not the case. Good goalies are not lucky. They recognize situations. They see the possibility of a deflection and then spread themselves out to cover as much of the net as possible. They see a screen shot the first few feet and then move to the spot where they figure it will be. That's not luck. And it's not luck when a shooter misses what looks like a certain goal. Maybe the shooter remembers suddenly that the goalie got over very fast to get his shot the last time, so this time he rushes his shot and misses it. The goalie has done his job, that's all."
Dryden and the Canadiens undeniably were lucky on Sunday afternoon, however, when their preferred opponents in the final round—the Black Hawks—beat the Rangers 4-2 in the seventh game of a series that had put absolutely no one to sleep. Three times Chicago and New York played into overtime and it was Bobby Hull who killed New York's hopes for its first Stanley Cup in 31 years.
Hull's first lethal blow of the week fell on Tuesday, with the teams tied 2-2 in games and 2-2 on the scoreboard of a sudden-death overtime. It was a perfect face-off play, with Center Pit Martin working the puck back to Hull, who in turn drilled a low drive into the corner to the left of Goalie Ed Giacomin. Then, with the teams tied 3-3 in games and the score 2-2 in the third period on Sunday, Hull won the series for the Black Hawks with an almost identical goal. This time Lou Angotti, replacing the injured Martin, drew the face-off to Hull, and Bobby fired again. The puck was past Giacomin before he could move.
And as the finals opened in Chicago the players were keeping the mortgage money in their pockets.