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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?"