It had been four years and two days since the Montreal Canadiens faced elimination from the Stanley Cup playoffs, but there they were last Thursday night, teetering on the brink of disaster in their game at the Forum with the Boston Bruins. The semifinal series stood at three games apiece—the home team had won every game—and the winner would advance to the finals against the precocious New York Rangers, who had completed their devastating upset of the top-seeded New York Islanders two nights before.
The Bruins, a gutsy team the Canadiens had soundly beaten the past two years in the Stanley Cup finals, hadn't won in the Forum since October 1976—14 straight games—but now, leading 3-1 after two periods, they seemed to be on the verge of ending their jinx. Boston's backup goaltender, Gilles Gilbert, who had sparked the Bruins to three wins in four games after Montreal had beaten Gerry Cheevers in the first two, was making one scintillating save after another. Captain Wayne Cashman, whose sore back was so tender he had to take pregame injections to kill the pain, had scored two goals and an assist, and with 20 minutes to play, even the most diehard Forum fanatics feared that the game was Boston's.
However, things were seen a little differently in Montreal's dressing room. "We forgot that it was 3-1," said 33-year-old Defenseman Serge Savard, the Montreal captain, "and decided to work hard for the next goal. Then, when we got that, we knew that one lucky shot would tie it. As an athlete, you never think you will lose."
So, at 6:10 of the third period, the confident and incomparable Guy Lafleur burst past Mike Milbury, one of Boston's tiring defensemen, and swooped around the Bruin net. As the flow came toward him, Lafleur passed the puck against the grain to Mark Napier, who slapped it just inside the near post. The Boston lead was now 3-2. Two minutes later, on a Montreal power play, Lafleur set up Guy Lapointe in a similar manner, and Lapointe, who was later carried from the ice on a stretcher with a badly sprained knee, tied the game at 3-3 with a shot that went past the screened Gilbert.
Rick Middleton put the Bruins back on top with 3:59 to play, but, astonishingly, Boston was penalized for having too many men on the ice, and with only 1:14 to play, Lafleur took the one lucky shot that Savard had talked about. Coming over the blue line, Jacques Lemaire dropped a pass to Lafleur, who slapped the puck on the fly, driving it past Gilbert into the lower left corner of the net.
Superstars like Lafleur do such things, saving their finest moments for the times of greatest need under maximum exposure. They have that knack. Just plain stars do wonderful things when the pressure is not quite so intense. Savard's role in the Canadiens' winning goal, which came at 9:33 of sudden death, is a case in point.
The big, dry-humored Canadien was defending alone against Middleton, and as Middleton tried to cut to the inside, about 35 feet in front of Montreal Goaltender Ken Dryden, Savard deftly took the puck off his stick. He wheeled and passed instantly to Rejean Houle, who in turn tipped the puck to Mario Tremblay. Tremblay broke around Boston Defenseman Al Sims and passed the puck across the crease to Yvon Lambert, who then rapped it through Gilbert's legs and into the goal to give the Canadiens a stunning 5-4 win and a berth in the finals. Savard, who was still at center ice when the goal was scored, didn't earn an assist on the play he had started, but he couldn't have cared less.
Quietly, cleanly, dependably, Savard had done his usual outstanding work. He had killed penalties, played forward on the power play—an unusual move that Coach Scotty Bowman made to give his team more muscle in front of the Bruin net—and had been on the ice for all five Montreal goals. He had also probably saved the game for the Canadiens back in the first period when he stopped a shot by Stan Jonathan after Jonathan had deked Dryden out of the net.
Totally exhausted after the Boston series, the Canadiens postponed Game 1 of the finals from Saturday night at 8 p.m. to Mother's Day at 4 p.m. in order to get an extra night's rest, but as it turned out only their mothers could have appreciated their performance. The Rangers, written off in the Montreal press as pretenders who would fall in four straight, produced a convincing 4-1 victory, the same score by which they had upset the Islanders in the opening game of that series.
Leading 2-1 midway through the game, the Rangers sealed their victory when Defenseman Larry Robinson, who had a terrible game, failed to clear the puck and Phil Esposito beat Dryden from the slot. Moments later, Dave Maloney completed the insult by scoring the Rangers' sixth shorthanded goal of the playoffs—an NHL record.