That crunching, crashing sound coming from the vicinity of rue Ste-Catherine and Avenue Atwater in Montreal last Sunday night was not an overtime demolition crew plowing up sidewalks. It was the crumbling of hockey's holiest dynasty. Les Canadiens, perennial odds-on favorites in Stanley Cup play, winners of the last four Cups, revered and feared throughout the NHL, went belly-up with 1:26 to play in the seventh and final game of their quarterfinal-round matchup against the upstart Minnesota North Stars. Al MacAdam sent the champs tumbling when he rapped a rebound past Goalie Denis Herron to give Minnesota a 3-2 victory right there in the Forum. Adieu, Canadiens. Go cry in your Molson's.
The very idea of the Canadiens getting an early holiday seemed absurd. Since their last abrupt ouster from the playoffs by Buffalo five years ago, the Habs had faced only two "must-win" contests. In last year's semifinal against Boston, Montreal teetered on the edge of elimination with the teams tied at three games apiece. Boston led 3-1 in the third period, but then...ah, le bleu, blanc et rouge, playoff tradition deep as an Arab oil field, all those guys named Guy—especially one called Flower—and "must-win" became "do-win." Montreal toppled the Bruins in overtime and went on to win the Cup. Naturellement.
Since then, though, Les Canadiens have lost Goaltender Ken Dryden to his legal studies, Center Jacques Lemaire to a Swiss hockey club and Coach Scotty Bowman to Buffalo. And last week those losses, coupled with a rash of disabling injuries to key players, left the Canadiens, well, in their cups. Guy Lafleur aggravated a knee injury during the Hartford series and could only watch all the Minnesota games on TV. Defenseman Serge Savard was suffering the lingering effects of a broken ankle and was all but useless. Centers Doug Risebrough and Pierre Mondou and Defenseman Guy Lapointe also were rendered hors de combat or ineffective because of injuries.
Lafleur, it was reported, would surely be ready for the semifinals. "What's he going to do—the color commentary on TV?" quipped Minnesota Center Bobby Smith.
Minnesota had stunned Montreal by winning the first two games at the Forum, but the Canadiens returned the insult by sweeping the next two games at the Met Center in Bloomington, Minn. The Canadiens then came back to Montreal for a 6-2 decision in Game 5 last Tuesday night, and suddenly the North Stars were one game from a vacation.
But Minnesota did an about-face Thursday night at the Met, humiliating the Canadiens 5-2. Worse still, the Canadiens were also hit with another critical injury: Center Pierre Larouche, a 50-goal scorer during the regular season, suffered a charley horse after receiving a bruising check from Fred Barrett, and he had to watch Sunday's game from the sidelines with his linemate Lafleur.
For the North Stars, who are now playing Philadelphia in the Cup semifinals, beating Montreal culminated a short trip from ineptness to respectability. Two years ago Minnesota had the worst record in the NHL; this season the North Stars finished sixth in the 21-team league, and now they are one of the final four.
"People keep saying, if we win tonight, it's a major upset for hockey," Minnesota Coach Glen Sonmor was saying before Sunday's game. "I just don't see it that way. We're confident. We're a poised, intelligent young team. The guys aren't awed completely by the Forum. If we come out with real intensity—and it's been one intense series—we could beat them."
Obviously, there was intensity aplenty Sunday, but then the North Stars played inspired hockey all season, albeit in fits and starts. They pieced together a 13-game unbeaten string at home, but they also compiled a dismal 11-20-9 road record. And while they put an end to Philadelphia's celebrated 35-game unbeaten streak, they also extended their winless seasons in Boston to 13.
The force behind the renaissance of the North Stars is 38-year-old Lou Nanne, who settled in as general manager in 1978 following a 10-year playing career with Minnesota. Nanne immediately launched a reconstruction project. In building a winner, "you've got to go with kids from the draft," says Nanne, the "kid" of NHL general managers. "They can grow with a team. We've got six kids on our roster who were drafted the last two years. And they're not just adequate. They're the core of our club."
The real core is Smith, the No. 1 draft pick in 1978; he scored 74 points in 1978-79 and was voted Rookie of the Year. Steve Payne, Smith's left wing, was a second-round choice that year, as were Forward Steve Christoff, late of the U.S. Olympic team, and Defenseman Curt Giles. Payne scored 42 goals this season, while Christoff had 15 points in the 20 games he played for Minnesota after Lake Placid. Wing Tom McCarthy and Defenseman Craig Hartsburg were the top picks in 1979; both play regularly.
The North Stars acquired added stock when the NHL merged the folding Cleveland Barons with Minnesota before the 1978-79 season. The principal additions: MacAdam, Defenseman Paul Shmyr and Goalies Gilles Meloche and Gary Edwards. MacAdam led Minnesota in scoring this year with 93 points while playing on a line with Smith and Payne. He is one of few Stars who has been the Stanley Cup route before. He played one game in Philadelphia's 1974 Cup win and thereby has a Stanley Cup ring. But he refuses to wear it, saying, "It doesn't mean anything. I haven't earned it."
Meloche not only doesn't own a ring, but he also never had been in the playoffs until this spring. A first-rate goalie for 10 NHL seasons, most of them with the likes of Cleveland and California, both now defunct, Meloche responded by shutting out Montreal in Game 1, in his hometown. In Game 7, Meloche wandered out of the crease regularly, at times playing backup defenseman, while blocking 22 of 24 shots. Even under the severe pressure, Meloche seemed to be enjoying himself.
For his counterpart, Herron, however, it was nightmare city. Herron looked like an out-of-whack windmill, nervously flailing at North Star shots and one-handing one too many. After Montreal's Mark Napier scored the game's first goal, Herron inadvertently let Minnesota back in the game. While McCarthy sat out an interference penalty, Minnesota sent the puck into the Canadiens' end and Herron eagerly came out of his cage to sweep it to a teammate. But his pass bounced off one of his own goalposts, and Minnesota's Tom Younghans backhanded it into the empty net. "It was an unfortunate play for Herron, but it definitely turned things around for us," said Smith. "You hate to see one guy accept responsibility for such a play."
Herron knew, though. He sagged to the ice, struck his stick against the surface and scarcely roamed from his doorstep again. Hartsburg put Minnesota ahead 2-1 in the second period, but even after Montreal's Rod Langway scored a third-period goal to tie the game, the North Stars kept skating.
"When I said I was anxious to play Montreal, I was laughed at," says Nanne. "But they're such a good skating club, and we're such a good skating club, I wanted to prove we could keep up with them. Even if we hadn't beaten them, just playing Montreal's game would have given us credibility."
Before Sunday's game there was speculation that Lafleur would suit up and, if nothing else, sit on the bench as an inspiration to his teammates. But he did not. "If I were 35 and in the last year of my contract," Lafleur said, "maybe I'd go out and skate on one leg. But I'm only 28. I don't want to end up like Bobby Orr. It's more important for me to play for this team another five years than for us to win another Cup."
Another Cup. Some teams—Minnesota included—have never seen one, yet Montreal refers to another one. Of course, the trophy has been housed at the Forum so often—22 times in all—that the Canadiens feel proprietary. What other arena sells miniature, silvery replicas of "our Stanley Cup"?
After Sunday's game, a man tried to buy one at a Forum souvenir stand. "Too late," he was told by a somber vendor. "Maybe next year."
Finally getting a taste of glory, North Star Goalie Gilles Meloche, here fending off Canadien Yvon Lambert, coolly responded with countless clutch saves.