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Austin Murphy
March 21, 1988
With 10 straight wins the Montreal Canadiens have streaked to the Adams Division lead
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March 21, 1988

Hot Hand

With 10 straight wins the Montreal Canadiens have streaked to the Adams Division lead

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In fact, although his phone was ringing off the hook before last week's trade deadline, general manager Serge Savard did not make a single move. Nicknamed the Senator, the Hall of Fame defenseman won a Stanley Cup in his third year as G.M. Indeed, Savard's patience and sound hockey instincts earned him a new five-year contract from Canadiens president Ronald Corey. And most general managers would have given up on Stephane Richer, whose immaturity and runaway ego made him all but unbearable in 1986-87, but Savard had faith in the richly talented but poorly adjusted 21-year-old forward. Result: Richer should score 50 goals this season, and he leads the NHL in game-winners with 11. They don't exactly hate it around Montreal that he happens to be a French-Canadian.

All in all these Canadiens are far superior to the group that won Montreal its 23rd Stanley Cup two years ago. The defensive corps, among the three most talented in the league, is more mature. Larry Robinson, the 36-year-old future Hall of Famer, is only the third-best defenseman on the team, behind Chelios, 26, and Svoboda, 22. Even without Robinson, who missed the first 21 games of the season after breaking his right leg while playing polo last summer, Montreal got off to a great start, losing just nine of its first 40 games. However, fissures appeared in the foundation toward the end of the year. The Canadiens would look like world-beaters for two periods and then relax and hope for the best. From Jan. 2 through Feb. 15, Montreal went 8-11-1.

The low point came on Jan. 21. The St. Louis Blues outplayed the Canadiens in Montreal, winning 4-1, and the game wasn't as close as the score. Afterward, Robinson publicly questioned Perron's coaching. The power play, which had been abysmal all season, was faltering as usual. Why not give right wing Kjell Dahlin more ice time? asked Robinson. "He [Perron] wants respect from the players," Robinson said, "but in order to get respect from players, you've got to respect them."

Perron questioned why Robinson didn't simply come into his office and speak his mind. "I'm a good listener," he said. "Who's got the right to go in the press and say he's not happy about the coach, like Darryl Strawberry? Nobody has that right."

As fate would have it, Robinson was the goat in the Canadiens' next defeat, a 4-3 overtime loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins on Jan. 23. ("If a player's going to criticize the coach, he should make sure it's when he's at the top of his game," says Perron.)

Hired by Savard in 1985, Perron has survived several crises, including a near-mutiny late in his first season. With the help of the Montreal press, the players let it be known that they didn't care for Perron's drill-sergeant style. Savard went into the dressing room and spoke to the team. To punctuate his points, he hit the walls. His message: Perron is my coach, and a lot of players will lose their jobs here before Perron does. Two months later Montreal had its first Stanley Cup in seven years.

Savard defused another incendiary situation six weeks ago. Perron had booted Chris (Knuckles) Nilan off the club's premier checking line, on which he played with Carbonneau and Gainey. A forward with passable offensive skills, a busy mouth and an all-league uppercut, Nilan made no secret of his displeasure with Perron. Choosing to excise the disaffection before it spread, on Jan. 27 Savard traded Nilan to the New York Rangers. The deal made the front pages of all three Montreal dailies.

Sans Knuckles, Montreal went 4-6. On Feb. 15, the Canadiens lost for the fifth time in a row—to the Rangers. Nilan gave new teammate Michel Petit $100 for scoring the winning goal.

But two days later Montreal beat the Bruins 3-2, and the Zamboni was looking like a Rolls again as the Canadiens accelerated into their winning streak. During those 10 victories they have scored 44 goals, while allowing only 20. As of last weekend. Roy's save percentage (.898) and Hayward's goals-against average (2.94) were among the league's best.

Montreal had solid defensemen and goaltenders last season, but Richer, desperately trying to live up to his billing as "the next Guy Lafleur," was maddeningly inconsistent. When Perron started sitting him down. Richer was baffled. "In juniors, I was like a king," he says. Richer ran his mouth, and the media ate it up.

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