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.