That crunching, crashing sound coming from the vicinity of rue Ste-Catherine and Avenue Atwater in Montreal last Sunday night was not an overtime demolition crew plowing up sidewalks. It was the crumbling of hockey's holiest dynasty. Les Canadiens, perennial odds-on favorites in Stanley Cup play, winners of the last four Cups, revered and feared throughout the NHL, went belly-up with 1:26 to play in the seventh and final game of their quarterfinal-round matchup against the upstart Minnesota North Stars. Al MacAdam sent the champs tumbling when he rapped a rebound past Goalie Denis Herron to give Minnesota a 3-2 victory right there in the Forum. Adieu, Canadiens. Go cry in your Molson's.
The very idea of the Canadiens getting an early holiday seemed absurd. Since their last abrupt ouster from the playoffs by Buffalo five years ago, the Habs had faced only two "must-win" contests. In last year's semifinal against Boston, Montreal teetered on the edge of elimination with the teams tied at three games apiece. Boston led 3-1 in the third period, but then...ah, le bleu, blanc et rouge, playoff tradition deep as an Arab oil field, all those guys named Guy—especially one called Flower—and "must-win" became "do-win." Montreal toppled the Bruins in overtime and went on to win the Cup. Naturellement.
Since then, though, Les Canadiens have lost Goaltender Ken Dryden to his legal studies, Center Jacques Lemaire to a Swiss hockey club and Coach Scotty Bowman to Buffalo. And last week those losses, coupled with a rash of disabling injuries to key players, left the Canadiens, well, in their cups. Guy Lafleur aggravated a knee injury during the Hartford series and could only watch all the Minnesota games on TV. Defenseman Serge Savard was suffering the lingering effects of a broken ankle and was all but useless. Centers Doug Risebrough and Pierre Mondou and Defenseman Guy Lapointe also were rendered hors de combat or ineffective because of injuries.
Lafleur, it was reported, would surely be ready for the semifinals. "What's he going to do—the color commentary on TV?" quipped Minnesota Center Bobby Smith.
Minnesota had stunned Montreal by winning the first two games at the Forum, but the Canadiens returned the insult by sweeping the next two games at the Met Center in Bloomington, Minn. The Canadiens then came back to Montreal for a 6-2 decision in Game 5 last Tuesday night, and suddenly the North Stars were one game from a vacation.
But Minnesota did an about-face Thursday night at the Met, humiliating the Canadiens 5-2. Worse still, the Canadiens were also hit with another critical injury: Center Pierre Larouche, a 50-goal scorer during the regular season, suffered a charley horse after receiving a bruising check from Fred Barrett, and he had to watch Sunday's game from the sidelines with his linemate Lafleur.
For the North Stars, who are now playing Philadelphia in the Cup semifinals, beating Montreal culminated a short trip from ineptness to respectability. Two years ago Minnesota had the worst record in the NHL; this season the North Stars finished sixth in the 21-team league, and now they are one of the final four.
"People keep saying, if we win tonight, it's a major upset for hockey," Minnesota Coach Glen Sonmor was saying before Sunday's game. "I just don't see it that way. We're confident. We're a poised, intelligent young team. The guys aren't awed completely by the Forum. If we come out with real intensity—and it's been one intense series—we could beat them."
Obviously, there was intensity aplenty Sunday, but then the North Stars played inspired hockey all season, albeit in fits and starts. They pieced together a 13-game unbeaten string at home, but they also compiled a dismal 11-20-9 road record. And while they put an end to Philadelphia's celebrated 35-game unbeaten streak, they also extended their winless seasons in Boston to 13.
The force behind the renaissance of the North Stars is 38-year-old Lou Nanne, who settled in as general manager in 1978 following a 10-year playing career with Minnesota. Nanne immediately launched a reconstruction project. In building a winner, "you've got to go with kids from the draft," says Nanne, the "kid" of NHL general managers. "They can grow with a team. We've got six kids on our roster who were drafted the last two years. And they're not just adequate. They're the core of our club."