By whatever name you call them—the Canadiens, Les Habitants, Le Bleu Blanc Rouge—the magnificent 18 who play ice hockey for Montreal are in a class apart in the National Hockey League. The league this season has two divisions: the Habs, up there in first place by a margin never before achieved by the NHL leaders in mid-February; and the five hab-nots, down in the depths scuffling for the three other Stanley Cup playoff positions.
Last weekend the Canadiens lost a close game to Chicago at home, then breezed into Manhattan and gave the second-place New York Rangers a 3-1 drubbing, to lead them by the staggering total of 25 points.
Any team that runs away to that kind of advantage with more than a month of the season remaining obviously must have something special, even in a year of general rebuilding and unprecedented injuries. The Canadiens have everything. You might not see the same 18 on the ice for more than a few games at a time, injuries having been so frequent and severe, but the reserves are so gifted that the effect is the same.
On the attack the Canadiens move with breathtaking speed, like a troop of cavalry overrunning dismounted men. This swashbuckling offense tends to becloud the fact that the defense is far and away the best in the league and probably the best of all in the 28 years since the advent of forward passing in the offensive zone—a change of rules which radically altered the role of the defenseman. In goal, Jacques Plante, who crouches alertly on this week's cover, is a sharp-eyed, courageous and original gardien de buts who has been well-blooded in his difficult profession, having had both cheekbones and his nose broken by the puck.
"But see here," someone says, "with the high-scoring forwards the Canadiens have, a good offense is the best defense."
Not true. "We're a freewheeling team," says the Canadiens' managing director, Frank Selke. "We're not. spoilers. We don't try to keep the other team from playing hockey. If we just win the game that doesn't please us. We want to put on a good show for the fans. As a result there is plenty of pressure on the defense, and Plante gets a lot of work."
Playing to scripture according to Frank Selke, the Canadiens have indeed put on a good show. Maurice Richard, one of the great athletes of the century, played in just enough games of his 16th season with Montreal to score that historic 500th regular-season goal and a few more before a slashed Achilles' tendon put him on the sick list. So the precocious left wing, Dickie Moore, took over Richard's right wing, earned a midseason all-star berth and now leads the NHL in scoring. Rocket Richard's little brother Henri (the Pocket Rocket), who won't be 22 until the end of this month, earned the center position on the midseason all-star team. The fact that big Jean Beliveau missed 15 games and Bernie (Boom Boom) Geoffrion missed five and Plante missed nine through illness or injury before the stretch run seemed not to matter. Now Geoffrion is out again, and so are Left Wing Bert Olmstead and Defenseman Jean-Guy Talbot—and the show goes on just about as brilliantly as before.
And though the pressure is great, as Frank Selke says, the Montreal defense is uniquely equipped to thrive on it.
LONESOME BACK THERE
On the tense fifth night of the Stanley Cup finals four years ago (the story goes), a Montreal forward named Johnny McCormack was hawking the puck in Detroit ice so ferociously that the Red Wings could not move it out of their zone. He kept at it so long that finally Doug Harvey, the celebrated arrière-garde of the Canadiens, called out to McCormack, "Let 'em get by, Johnny. It's awfully lonely back here."