Last Thursday night at the Montreal Forum it seemed like the good old days—for exactly two periods. Les Canadiens were wheeling about the ice, forechecking, attacking, headmanning the puck, and at the heart of the charge was the indomitable Guy Lafleur. When Montreal is on its game, it seems as if no one else is on the ice, and the St. Louis Blues were practically invisible. The score was only 4-0—two goals for Lafleur, two for linemate Steve Shutt—thanks mainly to the stand-'em-on-their-heads play of St. Louis Goaltender Mike Liut. "We were perfect for two periods, perfect," said Lucky Pierre Larouche, who centers for Shutt and Lafleur.
Only this wasn't the old days. This wasn't two years ago, when the Canadiens were winning their fourth straight Stanley Cup and the Blues were the doormats of the league, losing 50 games. This was the 70th game of the 1980-81 season and St. Louis was in first place in the overall NHL standings, a position it had never held past the third game of any season in its 13-year history. Now, in the third period, the Canadiens started sagging, and the Blues took command, scoring three unanswered goals before the clock ran out on them. The 4-3 defeat was their first this season to Montreal, and it left them eight points up on the third-place Canadiens and four up on the second-place New York Islanders with three weeks to go before the playoffs. Afterward the Canadiens were wondering what had happened to their killer instinct—in their Stanley Cup years it was unheard of to gain on Montreal in the third period—and the Forum fans were thinking that these two clubs may well meet again in the Stanley Cup finals. It would be a good match.
The Blues and the Canadiens are opposites. The strength of one is, in most instances, the weakness of the other. Montreal's defense is peerless; St. Louis' is suspect. In Liut, the Blues have the best goalie in hockey, the new Ken Dryden; the Canadiens' goaltending situation has been a circus. The Blues lead the league in scoring, Montreal in fewest goals allowed. The Blues have had a harmonious season, the Canadiens a troubled one.
But the biggest difference between the clubs has to do with tradition. The Forum reeks with it. Twenty-one Stanley Cup banners hang from the rafters, and Canadien rookies and other newcomers are forced to serve apprenticeships on the bench until they are found worthy and hungry enough to wear the uniform. St. Louis was molded from rookies and castoffs brought in by General Manager Emile Francis, and all that hangs from the rafters of their cereal palace, a/k/a The Checkerdome, are suicidal ticket holders who had to watch the Blues play between 1977 and 1979, when they lost 97 games in two seasons.
While Canadien players spent those summers brimming with pride over yet another Stanley Cup, Blues players like Bryan Sutter and Bernie Federko spent the off-season dreading being asked for whom they played. The Saint Louis Blues? Kids at their hockey camps would smirk and withdraw requests for autographs. Nine members of the present team were on the 1978-79 St. Louis club that went 18-50-12.
"They all know what it's like to be on one of the worst teams in the league," says Blues Coach Red Berenson, "and not one of them is going to forget it. They lost, but they didn't become losers."
It was Berenson's appearance behind the bench early last season that precipitated the most dramatic turnaround in NHL history. The Blues had gotten off to another dismal start (8-16-4) when illness forced Coach Barclay Plager to step down. Berenson, who as a high-scoring center was the cornerstone of the St. Louis franchise during its early NHL years, had been Plager's assistant, and Francis wisely named him coach. In the next 16 games the Blues went 10-3-3, and they haven't looked back. "The hardest part of the job early on was lifting the mental blocks off what we thought of as our limitations," says Berenson. "Once we did that, things started to go better. And, of course, Liut softened the bumps for us."
Steamrollered is more the word. With Liut in goal, the Blues were 32-23-9 last season; without him, they were 2-11-3. He gave them the confidence to make mistakes—hockey may be a game of mistakes, but you can't play in fear of them—and if the Blues fell behind, they figured Liut would keep them close. So they kept plugging. St. Louis earned the reputation of being a team that didn't have sense enough to know when to quit (this season the Blues are the only club with a winning record against teams scoring first), and it improved on its 1978-79 record by 32 points.
At the start of this season, no one dreamed St. Louis would be the NHL's most improved team a second year in a row, but that's just what it will be. In light of what the Blues had already accomplished, Berenson's own goals were modest: 1) to make the playoffs; 2) finish first in the (hapless) Smythe Division; 3) finish among the top eight teams in the league. He figured 90 points might do it. At week's end the Blues were at 99 and counting, with a 42-14-15 record.
"We're only a year older, but we're a helluva lot more than a year better," says Berenson. One of the main reasons is a more balanced attack. St. Louis has eight forwards with 20 or more goals. Leading this group are Wayne Babych with 50 and Federko, the club's top scorer with 93 points. Babych and Federko are two of a league-high 11 first-round draft selections that Francis either traded for or picked himself. Another is Blake Dunlop, a Minnesota and Philadelphia reject, who has emerged as the Blues' third-ranking scorer.