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On paper and on ice, Montreal seems too deep, too classy and too talented for those upstart Islanders and the dethroned Flyers

If you take out a MONTREAL fact book and start turning the pages—past the section that details how the Canadiens piled up a record 127 points last season, past the page that shows the team's 12-1 route to the Stanley Cup and past the first dozen Canadiens in scoring—you will come to Bob Gainey. And if you read Gainey's bio, you will find that he is 22 years old, stands 6'2", weighs 185 pounds, plays left wing and had vanilla statistics like 15 goals and 28 points in 1975-76. You ask why all the ink about Gainey? Well, it is because of Gainey and his kind that the Canadiens are almost as certain to win the cup again as it is to snow in Medicine Hat.

A year ago Montreal was not the team to beat. Philadelphia was. So the Canadiens routed the Flyers in four straight games for the cup. Now the Montrealers are being compared to the great Canadiens teams of the '50s when Rocket Richard, Boom Boom Geoffrion, Doug Harvey, Jean Beliveau, Dickie Moore and Jacques Plante dominated the sport.

Ken Dryden ranks with the Flyers' Bernie Parent as the best of the NHL's goaltenders when both are in top form (Dryden had an off-season knee operation; Parent has had nerve problems in his neck). Coach Scotty Bowman has built the league's finest defense around Guy Lapointe, Larry Robinson and Serge Savard. Forwards Guy Lafleur (the scoring champion with 56 goals and 69 assists for 125 points), Peter Mahovlich (105 points), Steve Shutt (45 goals), Yvan Cournoyer (32), Yvon Lambert (32), Jacques Lemaire (20) and others are handy around the net. Despite these familiar assets, Montreal failed to approach its success potential—and never was mentioned in the same breath with those '50s teams—until, as Bowman says, "We changed the way we played. People forget that those teams also had the Bert Olmsteads, Donny Marshall, Claude Provosts and Henri Richards who checked and worked their tails off. Well, last season we won the Vezina Trophy for the fewest goals allowed. That was the tale of our turnaround. We didn't play only at one end of the ice. And the key guy really was Gainey. Gainey and probably Doug Jarvis."

While Lafleur fuels Montreal's offense, Gainey is the hound-dog forward who neutralizes the big scorers on the opposition—e.g., Philadelphia's Reggie Leach, Toronto's Lanny McDonald, the New York Islanders' Billy Harris. Jarvis, a feisty 5'9" center, scored only five goals last season, but he is a penalty-killing and faceoff wizard, and he replaces Mahovlich, Lemaire—anyone—for anything resembling a key faceoff. "Gainey and Jarvis set the example for this team," says Bowman. "Now you see everyone back-checking." So Montreal—hockey's best—will clinch the Norris Division title by about Thanksgiving.

Four years ago the Detroit Red Wings looked at Defenseman Gerry Hart, noticed that at 5'9" he wasn't much bigger than a hockey stick, examined his bad knees and, understandably, sent him to the expansion NEW YORK Islanders. Now as the Islanders start their fifth season, Hart is a major reason why those onetime laughingstocks, who won only 12 games in their first year, have quickly developed into the NHL's No. 2 team and No. 1 in the Patrick Division, ahead of Philadelphia.

With the Islanders, Hart's main job is to play goalie-sitter for Glenn Resch and Billy Smith so his defense partner, Denis Potvin, can make frequent puck-carrying forays. "Every once in a while the puck feels so good on my stick I'm convinced I can be a scorer," Hart says, "but then I look at my career record, count my goals [14 in five seasons] and go back to my job."

With the emergence of Potvin, who scored 31 goals and 67 assists and won the Norris Trophy as the NHL's best defenseman; the dazzle of the young line of Billy Harris, Clark Gillies and Rookie of the Year Bryan Trottier; the goaltending of Resch and Smith, who together yielded only 190 goals, second to Montreal; and the steadiness of Hart, Bert Marshall and Eddie Westfall, the once-abominable Islanders moved into the 100-point class last season. "People think we need a 50-goal scorer to win the cup," Hart says, "but I'm not so sure. We've got guys like Harris and Gillies who can score a lot—and a lot of guys who can score a little. The key is how we react now that we're no longer an underdog."

Gone from PHILADELPHIA is Dave Schultz and his quick fists. And gone, of course, is the Stanley Cup. Present are nagging questions. Will Captain Bobby Clarke's aching Achilles tendon, the source of recent discomfort, get well? Can Parent, who tended goal in only 11 games last season, be the Parent of old? He did not look it during the exhibition schedule. And will Forward Rick MacLeish play at full velocity after the knee surgery that sidelined him midway through the 1975-76 season? If Clarke, Parent and MacLeish are less than 100% healthy and 100% effective, the Flyers won't be flying.

Coach Fred Shero has moved MacLeish, the only Flyer forward with any speed, from center to left wing. The Flyers still have the highest-scoring line in NHL history—Clarke (30 goals) centering for Reggie Leach (61) and Bill Barber (50), while Jimmy Watson is an All-Star defenseman. Schultz's departure does not signal the end of the Broad Street Bullies. Hound Kelly, Moose Dupont and tough Jack McIlhargey all return, and there is a new strongman in town—Right Wing Paul Holmgren.

In Don Luce and Craig Ramsay BUFFALO has the Joe Rudi and Gene Tenace of the NHL, the low-profile operators who do all the dirty work—backchecking, forechecking, penalty killing—for the Sabres. "I never was a star, not even when I was 10, so I always had to work harder just to play," says Ramsay, left wing on the line centered by Luce. "People tend to talk about the wrong things," Luce says. "Like the number of goals a player scores. What good are goals if you don't play defense?"

Luce scored but 21 goals and Ramsay 22 last season as Buffalo finished second behind Boston in the Adams Division. Danny Gare, who plays the right side with Luce and Ramsay, scored 50 goals, while the French Connection combined for 128: Gilbert Perreault 44, Rick Martin 49 and Rene Robert 35. Nevertheless, the Sabres were bounced from the playoffs by the Islanders. Coach Floyd Smith has frequently severed the Connection in the interests of defensive hockey, and it may not survive this season. The Buffalo defense remains error prone, although a healthy Jim Schoenfeld could overcome that handicap, and the goaltending is terribly inconsistent at best.

Chicago has not been an exciting hockey town since Bobby Hull left four years ago. If they have finished welding his knees, Bobby Orr will restore the zest, not to mention scoring power. The Black Hawks' idea of a rout has been a 1-0 sleepwalk. Given a poor grade of Orr, Center Stan Mikita and Goaltender Tony Esposito would have to recycle the magic that produced those 1-0 routs. In any case the Black Hawks should waltz to the Smythe Division championship.

Orr's departure is one reason why BOSTON probably will not repeat as the Adams Division champion; the Bruins are weak on defense, where only Brad Park, who has had a few knee operations himself, handles the puck with any confidence. Chicago could strengthen the Boston defense considerably by providing Phil Russell or Dick Redmond—or both—as compensation for Orr. The goaltending team of Gerry Cheevers and Gil Gilbert is solid, and Forwards Peter McNab and Rick Middleton have been acquired in an attempt to get some scoring thump into the lineup. Coach Don Cherry, who introduced Boston to checking hockey with favorable results a year ago, has staunch centers in Jean Ratelle and Gregg Sheppard, and ancient Johnny Bucyk returns as a power-play specialist at left wing. But Boston will be hard pressed to produce enough goals to compensate for the leaks in the defense.

"We're going to win the Stanley Cup in two years," shouts TORONTO Owner Harold Ballard. "Maybe we'll win it this season." Indeed, the Leafs are back after spending almost a decade in various stages of rebuilding programs. "We went from 13th to seventh in the overall standings last season," says Coach Red Kelly. "Now comes the hard part." Sweden's Borje Salming, young Ian Turnbull and dependable Brian Glennie key the defense for Goaltender Wayne Thomas (3.19 goals-against average in 64 games). Kelly's attack is chiefly the line of Captain Darryl Sittler (41 goals), Lanny McDonald (37) and Errol Thompson (43). "Sittler's a throwback to the old school," says Kelly. "His great nights [six goals against Boston, five against the Flyers in the playoffs] never affect him."

Last year LOS ANGELES regressed by 20 points, but Owner Jack Kent Cooke forgave the Kings when they beat Atlanta in the opening round of the playoffs and then clawed through two overtime wins while forcing Boston to seven games before bowing in the quarterfinals. "That spirit carried over," says Coach Bob Pulford. One reason for LA's regular-season problems a year ago: the goals-against total shot up by 80, while the goals-for dropped by six. Local scholars trace that to the absence of miracles from newcomer Marcel Dionne (his 94 points were fewer than expected) and the departure of Corner Cop Dan Maloney and Defenseman Terry Harper. "Actually, what happened was that we broke in three young defensemen," Pulford says. Now Gary Sargent, Dave Hutchison and Neil Komadoski have gained their experience the hard way, and seem ready to provide dependable help for Bob Murdoch, who singlehandedly tried to cover up for all the blunders his youthful mates committed in front of Goaltender Rogatien Vachon.

The Los Angeles Times gave the arrival of Dave Schultz equal billing with the hiring of Manager Tom Lasorda by the Dodgers. In the land of the Beach Boys, though, the Hammer will not be asked to kick sand in anyone's face. Hutchison and Bert Wilson handle that for the Kings.

In PITTSBURGH Plucky Pierre Larouche comes off a 53-goal and 58-assist season, which makes him the highest-scoring 20-year-old in major league history. Defensively, though, Larouche rarely came across the other side of the red line. "It's not that Pierre can't play defense," explains Coach Ken Schinkel, "it's just that he's so preoccupied with the puck, he forgets about it." This forgetfulness does not make Pierre an unusual Penguin. Jean Pronovost scored 52 goals, Syl Apps 32, Rick Kehoe 29, Lowell MacDonald 30, Vic Hadfield 30 and Battleship Kelly 25 as the Penguins flashed the red light a total of 339 times, second to Philadelphia. However, they gave up 303—the third highest total in the league. Veteran Don Awrey, acquired from Montreal, joins a defense that includes Dave Burrows and Ron Stack-house, but all the Penguin defensemen lack the speed and puck-handling ability to clear the puck with dispatch. Compounding this problem, new Goaltender Denis Herron broke his arm in the opening game last week and will play spectator for a few months.

At last the NEW YORK Rangers have added muscle to their lineup. Coach John Ferguson, hockey's best cop during his days as Montreal's enforcer, prays that Nick Fotiu will be a Ferguson for the Rangers and, as he says, "give us some respect." Born and raised on Staten Island, a subway-and-ferry ride from Madison Square Garden, Fotiu once won the Police Athletic League's boxing championship. Ferguson has disposed of several high-salaried Rangers who spent too much time admiring their checkbooks and replaced them with aggressive youngsters such as Right Wing Don Murdoch and Defenseman Mike McEwen. He also has brought in Right Wing Ken Hodge from Boston to work alongside former linemate Phil Esposito. Hodge wore No. 8 and Esposito No. 7 in Boston. They are now 88 and 77, respectively, in Fun City. Still, the Rangers are weak defensively and porous in goal, where John Davidson spends too much time flopping to the ice and newcomer Gillies Gratton performs erratically.

The Rangers will battle ATLANTA for the final playoff berth in the Patrick Division, which the Flames won last season. Atlanta's goaltending is everything that New York's is not—namely dependable—with Phil Myre and Daniel Bouchard, who gave up 95 fewer goals than the Ranger net minders. Rookie Center Guy Chouinard strengthens Atlanta's weak power play, and rookie Richard Mulhern takes a regular defense job. Curt Bennett (34 goals) and Eric Vail, whose broken collarbone has mended, power an attack that will be a scorcher if Center Tom Lysiak, the most talented Flame, plays to his potential. Lysiak made scoring 31 goals and 51 assists look very easy last year.

Well, no more California Seals. For better or worse, they are the CLEVELAND Barons now, and they are only one quality defenseman away from being a legitimate playoff threat in the Adams race. Rick Hampton, 20, has matured into the leader, an Orr-generation defenseman who personally creates an offense. No. 1 draft choice Bjorn Johnansson moves in as a regular on defense. And the 3-M line of Dennis Maruk (30 goals), Bob Murdoch (22) and Al MacAdam (32), along with a fourth M—Center Wayne Merrick, who scored 32 goals—provides Cleveland with consistent scoring. Goaltender Gilles Meloche (3.44 average) is the happiest Baron, though, because Cleveland does not face the extended road trips that always plagued the Seals.

Vancouver Coach Phil Maloney decided he'd had enough of his "malcontents," so long gone are Goaltender Gary Smith, Center Andre Boudrias and Defenseman Tracy Pratt. Ancient Cesare Maniago, 37, replaces Smith, and accident-prone Center Chris Oddleifson, who has broken his jaw four times, takes over as captain. Lanky Bob Dailey leads the defense, with Dennis Ververgaert (37 goals), Don Lever (25), Rick Blight (25) and Mike Walton (eight goals in 10 games) the main scorers.

During his decade in New York, Emile Francis usually used ST. LOUIS as his Siberia. Then Francis was fired by the Rangers, and now he is running the Blues—surrounded by seven of his former players. Defenseman Rod Seiling verbally ripped Francis when the Cat disposed of him, but all seems to be forgiven because Seiling has signed with the Blues as a free agent. For scorers, Francis has Chuck Lefley, who had 43 goals last year, including eight while the Blues were shorthanded, and iron man Garry Unger, who had 39. But Seiling and Bob Hess are the only defensemen with any puck-handling skill—and the only ones without a second home in the penalty box. How far the Blues travel will depend on 21-year-old Goaltender Ed Staniowski.

Foam Lake, Saskatchewan held a Dennis Polonich Day this summer, which probably comes as a surprise to anyone not from Foam Lake or DETROIT. The 5'6", 166-pound Polonich swashbuckled into the NHL last year by looking Bobby Clarke in the eye, informing him, "I'm not impressed with your press clippings," and then having a stick fight with the Flyer. Polonich later fought Bobby Orr, and Red Kelly said, "The next time he comes to Toronto, I'll tell my guys to take their stick and hit him over the head with it." For his efforts, Polonich received 302 penalty minutes—and a new two-year contract. Detroit has missed the playoffs for six straight years—and this season will make it seven. Besides a capable defense, what the Red Wings lack most is a full-time coach. After an "exhaustive search," the Red Wings announced they had found one but that he wouldn't take over until next season. This situation leaves Billy Dea as the designated bench coach talking on a headset to General Manager Alex Delvecchio upstairs in the press box. Despite this slapstick setting, Detroit is assembling some quality players, particularly Polonich, Right Wing Michel Bergeron (32 goals last season as a rookie) and rookie Forward Fred Williams.

Around MINNESOTA, the North Stars have been called the No Stars for their dismal performances in recent years. Rookie Left Wing Steve Jensen, a native of Minneapolis, may help them reinstate the "rth" this season. "I remember coming to the Met as a kid when the North Stars played to sellout crowds," says the 21-year-old Jensen, "and I think we can fill it again." Jensen, who joined Minnesota after the Olympics last February and scored seven goals in 19 games, works with another rookie. Center Roland Ericksson of Sweden, on a line with Bill Goldsworthy, the onetime North Star star. Another Minnesota native, Peter LoPresti, is the hope in goal, but there may be no hope for the No Stars on defense.

The Kansas City Scouts have resurfaced as the COLORADO Rockies, but the people around Denver, remembering how the WHA's Spurs skipped town under the cover of darkness last winter, have not knocked down the ticket wickets. The NHL has sent several CARE packages to the Rockies, including Forwards Sean Shanahan and Ron Andruff from Montreal, Defenseman Tom Edur from Boston and Goaltender Doug Favell from Toronto. And the rival WHA even chipped in with Wing Barry Dean, the No. 1 amateur draft pick of Kansas City in 1975, who signed with Phoenix when the money-poor Scouts could not meet his contract demands. What Colorado needs now is quality play from Wilf Paiement, the 20-year-old right wing who had to sit out the final 23 games last season because of calcium deposits in his thigh.

Washington drafted Defenseman Greg Joly two years ago, gave him a five-year, $800,000 contract and called him the new Orr. Joly has not been compared to Orr since, and the Capitals may recycle him as a center. Coach Tommy McVie gets scoring power from newcomer Guy Charron and Hartland Monahan, although Monahan doesn't have the touch of his father-in-law, Boom Boom Geoffrion. The Capitals are still the worst team in the NHL.


Gainey back-checks for the Canadiens.


Hart baby-sits for the Islanders' two goaltenders.


MacLeish now flies on left wing for the Flyers.


Murdoch is the Kings' old man on defense.


Luce and Ramsay wish their Sabre teammates would do some checking.


Hampton skates from Oakland to Cleveland.


Jensen is Minnesota's box-office hopeful.