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By mid-November the G.M. and coach of the BUFFALO SABRES, Scotty Bowman, should have 691 career victories—he needs 11 to break the late Dick Irvin's record—and his young, shrewdly drafted team (half a dozen selections from the last three drafts are on the Sabres' roster) will be on top in the divisional race.
The key player is cocky 19-year-old goalie Tom Barrasso. Surprised you were the 1984 Vezina Trophy winner (best goaltender) and Rookie of the Year, Tom? "I'd have been surprised if I wasn't," he says.
Bowman will add muscle to Buffalo's second-in-the-league defense by moving tough Lindy Ruff from left wing to the blue line, where he and 6'4", 215-pound Larry Playfair will be the designated hitters. No doubt there'll be laments that Ruff is and Playfair doesn't. But the Sabres have to do something to slow down the freewheeling Quebec Nordiques, who beat Buffalo nine times in 11 games last season, including a 3-0 first-round playoff sweep. Captain Gil Perreault, who dates back to Buffalo's beginnings in '70, will shift from center to left wing but is still a good bet to have his ninth 30-goal-plus season, though he'll be chased for the team scoring lead by garbage man Dave Andreychuk and offensive defenseman Phil Housley.
The BOSTON BRUINS are bringing another rat into 56-year-old Boston Garden, which already has plenty of the rodents. Scrappy center Ken (Rat) Linseman, whom we last saw scoring the Cup-winning goal for Edmonton, was acquired in an off-season deal for center/ left wing Mike Krushelnyski. Bruin G.M. Harry Sinden says, "We got Ken because we need a center we can build a line on." Last season only the combination of Rick Middleton and Barry Pederson, often abetted by defenseman Ray Bourque, scored consistently for Boston. By April those three were dead on their skates and so were the Bruins, who were broomed out of the playoffs in three straight by Montreal. Now Pederson's sidelined for two months with a broken hand, suffered in a fight with Mario Marois during a 182-penalty-minute exhibition game against Quebec. If Linseman produces—probably on a line with Keith Crowder and Terry O'Reilly—he'll be King Rat of Causeway Street. The Bruins may also give a European player an important role for the first time if they use 5'10", 185-pound Swedish defenseman Mats Thelin, a basher who'll lay to rest the notion that Swedes aren't tough enough for the NHL. The Bruins, whose traditional hard hitting is effective in the Garden because its rink is the smallest in the league, may be even more physical this season with the addition of either 6'3", 205-pound John Blum or 6'6", 215-pound Brian Curran as the sixth defenseman.
What sort of death wish lurks in the suspect hearts of the QUEBEC NORDIQUES? One of the NHL's most talented and improved teams last year (16th to fifth in goals allowed, 11th to seventh in the overall standings, second only to Edmonton in goals scored), Quebec has never won in overtime during the regular season, and it lost to sub-.500 Montreal in a physical divisional final. Against the Canadiens, two of Quebec's top guns, high scorer Michel Goulet and captain Dale Hunter, never answered the wake-up call, much less the challenge. Moody, reclusive Daniel Bouchard has yet to prove he's a playoff goaltender. But there's so much firepower here ( Goulet, Wilf Paiement and the Stastny brothers—Peter, Marian and Anton) that the Nords will do well in the regular season. The defense, anchored by Marois, will be at least as good as last year's, but by playoff time look for ex-Canadien Richard Sevigny, signed as a free agent this summer, or former Canadian Olympian Mario (Goose) Gosselin to replace Bouchard.
While the Canadian dollar has declined against the U.S. buck, MONTREAL CANADIENS fans may find that the Penney, as in rookie goalie Steve, has also lost value. He played brilliantly in the first two rounds of the playoffs but then was picked apart by the Islanders. If Penney falters (he has played only 19 NHL games), the Canadiens are in serious goalie trouble, because they've lost their two regular-season starters. Rick Wamsley was sent to St. Louis, and Sevigny slipped away to Quebec as a free agent. Revealing Stats Department: Guy Lafleur, 33; Larry Robinson, 33; Steve Shutt, 32; Bob Gainey, 30 (ages, folks, not goals).
If the HARTFORD WHALERS had gone 3-4-1 instead of 0-7-1 against Montreal, they, not the Habs, would've made the playoffs. Hartford could sneak in this year if Montreal falters and if the plodding Whaler defensemen can move the puck out of their own zone quickly so that burners David A. Jensen and Sylvain Turgeon can utilize their speed. But how much offense can you expect from a team whose regulars—Ed Hospodar (since traded), Joel Quenneville, Jack Browns-chidle, Mike Crombeen and Marty Howe—all finished behind Edmonton goaltender Grant Fuhr (no goals, 14 assists) in the NHL scoring race.
In D.C. only Caspar Weinberger heads a better defense department than WASHINGTON CAPITALS captain and two-time Norris Trophy winner Rod Langway. The Caps allowed the fewest goals (226) in the NHL in 1983-84, and that was the main reason the team overcame an 0-7 start to finish second in the division and fifth in the overall standings, their best performance ever. The Blue-line Border Patrol is backed by supergoalies Pat Riggin and Al Jensen, who combined for a best-in-the-league 2.83 goals against per game. But Washington needs some first-strike capability. Top scorer Mike Gartner (40 goals, 85 points) was the only Cap to get more than 32 goals, though Bobby Carpenter (28, 68) could have a 35-to-40-goal year, judging from his excellent play for Team U.S.A. in the Canada Cup. But NHL Coach of the Year Bryan Murray must do something about a 19th-ranked power play that scored only 77 goals in 382 opportunities.