It was obvious, too, that the Canadiens sorely missed the genius of Sam Pollock, who retired as general manager last summer following the team's ninth Stanley Cup triumph in 14 years. Pollock left a house divided, a house confused. Most people expected that Pollock would appoint Bowman, who had been a highly successful general manager in St. Louis, as his replacement, but Pollock split the responsibilities among several people, with Irving Grundman assuming the No. 1 title as managing director.
Grundman's detractors claim that while he may well be a shrewd businessman, he is not a "hockey man." A hockey man, a Pollock, would have obtained a No. 4 defenseman for the Canadiens by now, or so they insist. "Would Sam Pollock have let Phil Russell be traded from Chicago to Atlanta when Phil Russell was exactly the defenseman the Canadiens needed?" they ask.
Meanwhile, all was serene among the Islanders. They had already beaten the Canadiens in two of their three meetings this season, and they were buoyed by the fact that they had compiled a better record than the Canadiens even while playing a more difficult schedule. The Islanders drew 33 games against what are now the third- through seventh-place teams in the NHL's overall standings, the Canadiens just 20.
And while Denis Potvin clearly had become the premier defenseman in the NHL, Trottier had replaced Lafleur as the premier forward. The shy, 22-year-old Trottier claims that he is more talkative this year, particularly in the dressing room, where, he says, he no longer hesitates to prod teammates into exerting greater effort. "In the past," Trottier says, "I always felt who was I to speak out, but now I do it and the hell with the consequences. If I make some guy mad, that's his problem. All I want everyone to know is how hard I work on the ice. I want them to see players years from now and think, 'Hey, that guy plays just as hard as Trottier used to play.' "
For almost two seasons, Trottier's line, with sniper Mike Bossy and massive Clark Gillies on the wings, had been the most potent attack force in the NHL, averaging almost four points a game, but in a stunning move Islander Coach Al Arbour recently replaced Gillies at left wing with John Tonelli, a scrapper imported last summer from the WHA. "A very wise decision," Bowman says. "Despite their record, the Islanders were too much of a one-line club, and in the playoffs it's pretty easy to stop one big line with a line made up of checking specialists. That's what Toronto did to them last year."
What usually happens when the Islanders play in Montreal is this: the Islanders, perhaps overawed, become too defensive-minded, and rather than skate their own crisp-passing, high-scoring game, they try to defense the Canadiens' attack instead. "It's like we've wanted to beat them 1-0 on a fluke goal from center ice," said one Islander. "And that style never worked. Whatever happens tonight will happen because we've played our game. We're No. 1 now—not the Canadiens. Let them stop us."
The Canadiens did not come close to stopping the Islanders, and Lafleur, though he took seven shots at Resch, did not come close to breaking his goal-scoring drought. As 18,083, the largest crowd of the season, watched in amazement, the Islanders seemed to toy with the befuddled Canadiens most of the game, which was played at a level of skill and speed rarely seen in these expansion times.
Bossy's league-high 59th goal, scored while Tonelli held the attention of the two Montreal defensemen, gave the Islanders a 1-0 lead at 1:40 of the first period. When the P.A. man announced that Trottier had been given an assist on Bossy's goal, moving him nine points ahead of Lafleur, the pro-Lafleur crowd booed for several seconds.
For the next 10 minutes one Islander after another broke through the beleaguered Montreal defense and assaulted Dryden on breakaways, but Dryden either made a miracle save or Islanders such as Wayne Merrick and Bob Bourne slid their shots wide of the cage. Then Jacques Lemaire tied the game for the Canadiens on a power-play goal, and two minutes later the crowd stood and roared when the P.A. man announced that Trottier's assist on Bossy's goal had been "taken off" and given to Tonelli instead, as indeed it should have been.
Moments later, though, Trottier had his assist back when he set up Pat Price for a shot that Dryden caught easily but accidentally dropped into the goal. The Islanders continued to bombard him, and near the end of the period Potvin, playing his best game ever in the Forum, went the length of the ice and set up Lorne Henning's goal for a 3-1 lead.