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Ever had the feeling you've just witnessed two franchises passing each other in midjourney—one ascending, fresh, eager, excited; the other on the descent, benumbed, exhausted, aching—like skiers on a chair lift at the end of a long day? So it was last week as Scotty Bowman's young Buffalo Sabres humiliated the once-mighty Montreal Canadiens by winning their opening-round confrontation in the NHL playoffs in three straight games.
The Sabres' clinching 4-2 win came on Saturday night in Buffalo's Memorial Auditorium, but the true rump-thumpings took place Wednesday and Thursday in the Montreal Forum, where an unlikely hero named Bob Sauve shut out the ostensibly prepotent Canadiens, the league's second-highest-scoring team in the regular season, 1-0 and 3-0. It was preposterous! A Montreal club that had averaged 4.38 goals per game got whitewashed in its hallowed Forum on consecutive nights. "I've had some weird dreams," said the 27-year-old Sauve (pronounced SOH-vay), who'd had only one shutout in 54 games this season, "but I've never dreamed this."
Said Canadien Coach Bob Berry, "We didn't score because of Sauve and because their whole team played well. We were prepared. I wouldn't do anything differently. We had videotapes, chalk talks, knew their power play, their penalty killing, everything."
The last man to shut out Montreal in two straight postseason games was Glenn Hall of the Chicago Black Hawks. He did it in 1961. The only other goaltender to pull off the feat was Terry Sawchuk of the Detroit Red Wings, in 1952. But before Sauve, no one had ever blanked the Canadiens in consecutive games in Montreal. Indeed, the Canadiens hadn't been held scoreless in one game at home since Gilles Meloche of the Minnesota North Stars beat them 3-0 in April 1980.
For Sauve and the Sabres to whitewash Montreal twice was made more miraculous by the fact that the teams had split their season's series 3-3-2, the Canadiens averaging nearly four goals a game. Montreal had finished the regular schedule with 98 points to Buffalo's 89. Further, the Sabres had ended the season shakily, going 4-7-1 in their last 12 games as Sauve's goals-against average in his final 10 starts soared to 4.25. And two of Buffalo's key defensemen, Phil Housley and Hannu Virta, were 19 and 20 years old, respectively. Conventional wisdom said forwards as fast as Montreal's would forecheck that kind of inexperience to death.
Although he refused to gloat, defeating Montreal was a delicious bit of revenge for Bowman. Four years ago Bowman, who had coached the Canadiens to five Stanley Cups in seven seasons, was in line for the Montreal general manager's job. However, he was snubbed in favor of Irving Grundman, whose background was in bowling alleys. Miffed, Bowman left to become general manager and coach of the Sabres.
The Canadiens have fared poorly since Bowman's departure. This is the third straight year they have lost in the opening round of the playoffs, and just about everyone in Montreal is predicting that Grundman's and Berry's heads will soon be served on a platter. Their successors will find a decimated farm system and a depleted depth chart. Both shortcomings are the result of poor drafting by Grundman and ill-advised deals he made before and during this season. The Canadiens will be in trouble for years.
That wasn't crystal clear, however, until last week. Bowman wanted to avoid a shootout at all costs, so his plan was to slow the tempo as much as possible and to check, check, check. He juggled his lines to keep Craig Ramsay, Buffalo's checker par excellence, opposite Guy Lafleur. In the first period of Game 1, Bowman used nine different line combinations. He did much of his maneuvering before face-offs. When they occurred in the Sabres' defensive zone, Bowman always had two centers on the ice—in case one was thrown out of the circle—including his face-off specialist, Brent Peterson. The period seemed to last forever. Sabre defensemen were falling on the puck along the boards, flipping it out of the rink, anything to disrupt the flow of play.
The plodding pace worked to Buffalo's advantage. Because of their dismal playoff performances in recent years, the Canadiens thought it essential that they start quickly, especially at home, where, shockingly, they have now lost eight of their last 11 postseason games. Montreal's forechecking was unable to get rolling, giving the Sabres' young defensemen an opportunity to get over their playoff jitters. When the Canadiens did break through—they outshot Buffalo 20-10 in the first two periods—Sauve was there to thwart them. Then early in the third period Peterson stuffed a rebound past Montreal Goalie Rick Wamsley for the game's only goal. Over the last 13 minutes, the Canadiens, increasingly frustrated by the Sabres' disciplined checking, got only one shot on goal.
Montreal's offense in Game 1 was positively awesome compared with what it mustered the next night. Buffalo took a 1-0 lead when Dale McCourt scored at 1:47 of the first period off a beautiful feed from Gil Perrault. The boos started about four minutes later. Montreal didn't get off its first shot on goal until 16:55 of the period. Buffalo put the game out of reach by scoring two goals within 37 seconds in the second period.