Ten minutes before the opening face-off in last Thursday night's showdown between the Montreal Canadiens and the New York Islanders, scalpers outside the Forum were still getting $125 for a single $15 seat in the "reds." Inside, Guy Lafleur and the Canadiens were about to begin an all-points search for their mystique, which had mysteriously vanished sometime during the previous two weeks.
Lafleur, the NHL scoring champion the last three seasons, had not scored a goal in seven games—"an eternity," he called it—and the Canadiens, who had strolled to the Stanley Cup championship in those three seasons, had won only two of their previous eight games. "It's tough to take," Lafleur noted, "when you're not used to it." The Canadiens were even less used to being two points behind the precocious Islanders, which is where they found themselves in their season-long war to gain the NHL's best record and the No. 1 seed in the playoffs. In addition, Lafleur was eight points behind Islander Center Bryan Trottier in the scoring race. Sacre bleu!
"Everybody says that what the Islanders are doing is good for hockey," said Montreal Goalie Ken Dryden. "Maybe it is, but it's not good for the Canadiens."
The plight of Lafleur and the Canadiens was severe enough to bounce even Margaret Trudeau's daily escapades from the front pages of Montreal's newspapers. Forget about Margaret's latest 3 a.m. disco partner. What's wrong with Lafleur? What's wrong with Les Canadiens? An entire nation was asking.
" Lafleur's just in a little slump, that's all," suggested Jean Beliveau, the former center extraordinaire who now is the Canadiens' senior vice-president for corporate affairs. But another Canadien official said, "The trouble with Guy, I'm afraid, is that he always goes as the team goes. The team is going badly now, and Lafleur is, too. When the team gets going, Guy'll get going. But I don't think Lafleur will be the guy who'll get the team going, if you know what I mean."
Does that imply that Lafleur is a front-runner?
"You said it, not me."
New York's Glenn (Chico) Resch, the thinking man's goaltender, had his own theory about what was wrong with Lafleur, but he did not want to reveal it until after the game. "The less I think or say about Lafleur before the game, the better it is for my peace of mind," said Resch. "Then again, maybe Lafleur will shoot pucks through my theory tonight."
Lafleur's goal-scoring famine was hardly the only reason why the Canadiens were mired in what Coach Scotty Bowman called "our first slump in almost four years." All season long Montreal had been ravaged by injuries; last week the team's publicity department issued a Bilan des Blessures that showed various ailing Canadiens had missed a total of 158 games.
Also, as Dryden observed, the Canadiens now were "a team with three defensemen looking for a fourth, or a team with two defensemen looking for two more." The unexpected off-season retirement of 26-year-old Bill Nyrop had robbed the Canadiens of their No. 4 defenseman and, to complicate things, Guy Lapointe, a frequent all-star on defense, had been performing erratically. As a result, Larry Robinson, who would try to play against the Islanders after missing seven games with a knee injury, and Serge Savard oftentimes had to be on the ice more than 40 minutes a game.