As they say in Montreal, plus �a change, plus c'est la m�me chose. Translation: nine NHL teams may have hired new coaches, the Philadelphia Flyers and the Detroit Red Wings may have brought back the mace and chain, Rod Gilbert and the New York Rangers may have kissed and made up, a company that produces dog chow, among other things, may have bought the St. Louis Blues, and the league's officials may have their last names stitched across the back of their uniform shirts, but none of the above will prevent the MONTREAL Canadiens from romping to their third straight Stanley Cup championship.
Accurately labeled "one of the three best teams in hockey history" last season after they coursed through the regular schedule with a 60-8-12 record, outscoring the opposition 387 goals to 171, and then coasted to the Stanley Cup by winning 12 of 14 games, Les Canadiens no doubt will be rated as "one of the four best teams in hockey history" at the conclusion of the 1977-78 season. Indeed, Montreal does not have a single weakness.
Other teams may be storing up on Slapshot brutes, but not the Canadiens. Montreal is hockey's biggest team, and any rival who dares pick on Jacques Lemaire or Guy Lafleur or Yvan Cournoyer can count on an immediate meeting with the fists of Larry Robinson or Pierre Bouchard or Yvon Lambert. The 6'3", 210-pound Robinson, the man with the elastic arms, emerged as the game's best defenseman last season and joins Serge Savard and Guy Lapointe to form the nucleus of a defense corps that provides Goaltenders Ken Dryden and Bunny Larocque with the type of protection that is envied by even the Secret Service. The forwards? Just MVP Lafleur and his 136 regular-season and 26 playoff points; Steve Shutt and his 60 goals; Lemaire and his pinpoint passes to Lafleur and Shutt; and all those pesky checkers and face-off wizards, most notably Doug Jarvis, Bob Gainey and Doug Risebrough.
While Montreal will be playing in the one-team Elite flight, the best of the rest—the NEW YORK Islanders, Philadelphia, Boston and Buffalo—will be warring in the Ronnie Runner-up class. It's about that time for the young Islanders, the only team to win a game from Montreal—three, in fact—in the last two Stanley Cup playoffs, to mature and overcome the too frequent cases of the blahs that have always afflicted them at the wrong times. What would certainly help the Islanders is consistent play from Denis Potvin, the 23-year-old defenseman whose exalted opinion of himself on and off the ice led to a long period of estrangement from his teammates and a deterioration of his game last year. L' Affaire Potvin seems to have quieted down, or at least Potvin no longer wonders aloud why his teammates don't visit museums and libraries or select a 1972 red with their dinners.
Thanks to the addition of two Swedish imports. Goaltender Goran Hogosta and Defenseman Stefan Persson, the Islanders almost certainly will be trading either a goaltender or a defenseman—or maybe one of each—in an attempt to acquire a forward with proven 35-goal ability. Although Billy Smith and Chico Resch combined to give New York the second-best goals-against average in the NHL a year ago, one could be expendable if Hogosta plays to expectation. Or Hogosta could be the odd man out.
Center Bryan Trottier and top draft choice Mike Bossy, a 75-goal scorer for the Laval (Quebec) juniors last season, seem to be the only Islander forwards who don't specialize in hitting goal posts or shooting the puck over the net and into the crowd, but Bossy's checking deficiencies may keep him on the bench in many games.
For better or worse, the old PHILADELPHIA Flyers are back. After fighting their way to two Stanley Cups, the Flyers tried to play it straight the last two years and came away empty. So now they will be the Broad St. Bullies once again, led by pugilistic Paul Holmgren, a right wing whose best shot seems to be an overhand right from the blind side. The Flyers initiated several bench-clearing brawls during the exhibition season, including a disgraceful donnybrook against Boston that spread to the corridors of the Spectrum.
Violence aside, Philadelphia will need more consistency in goal than Bernie Parent has provided the last two seasons; leadership on defense from 6'5", 215-pound Bob Dailey; and regular scoring by the once prolific line of Bobby Clarke, Bill Barber and Reggie Leach. Clarke dropped from 30 goals to 27, Barber from 50 to 20 and Leach from 61 to 32 last season. Only Rick MacLeish had a productive (49 goals) season for the Flyers, but this year he'll probably wear himself out trying to kill Holmgren's penalties.
BOSTON Coach Don Cherry took one look at top draft pick Dwight Foster and decided that he would fit right in with the Bruins' Lunchpail A.C. "Look at that scar between his eyes," Cherry said. "He's my kind of guy." Foster plays center, a position already overcrowded with Jean Ratelle (33 goals), Peter McNab (38) and Gregg Sheppard (31), one of whom could be traded for the defenseman—are you listening. Islanders—the Bruins need so desperately to work with Brad Park, Mike Milbury and Gary Doak. Boston also has an extra goaltender now that Ron Grahame has come over from the WHA to challenge holdovers Gerry Cheevers and Gilles Gilbert. One Bruin who will not—repeat, not—be traded is Right Wing Terry O'Reilly, the pack leader. "The Bruins used to think Phil Esposito and Bobby Orr were the soul of the team," says Philadelphia Coach Fred Shero, "but all along it was Terry O'Reilly."
New BUFFALO Coach Marcel Pronovost has made it clear to Defensemen Jim Schoenfeld and Jerry Korab that he expects them to use their collective 428 pounds for something other than pacifist causes. Trouble is, Schoenfeld and Sabres General Manager Punch Imlach are not on the same wavelength, and Schoenfeld could be dealt away if the Sabres don't skate to an explosive start. One other problem: for all the gaudy scoring statistics compiled by Gilbert Perreault, Richard Martin and Rene Robert, Buffalo has always come up short in the big games.