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Green and Walter are finding out what a privilege it can be to play on a Canadien team that's going well. Through Sunday Montreal had a 7-1-1 record. "It's just starting to sink in," says Green. "Being in that dressing room, playing in the Forum, being among a bunch of winners—it makes everybody's job easier. I look at this as a promotion."
Says Walter, who after nine games had four goals and four assists, "The aim in Washington was to make the playoffs, but here it's to win the Stanley Cup. [Veteran Defenseman] Larry Robinson told me after I got here that the last two years they've scored more than 100 points in the regular season, but the only thing anyone remembers is how they did in the playoffs."
In case anyone needs a reminder, the Canadiens lost in the first round of postseason play each of the last two years—to upstart Edmonton in three straight games in '81 and then to upstart Quebec in five last spring. Why? How? The big man had been shut down. Lafleur had only two goals and two assists in those eight games. This from a man who has averaged better than 1.2 points a game in the playoffs over his 11-year career. Management thought Lafleur—and the Canadiens—needed a left wing not only tough enough to dig the puck out of the corners and to park in front of the net on the power play but also skillful and fast enough to complement Lafleur's talents at right wing. No one in the vaunted Montreal farm system fitted that description. Walter did. The price, however, was dear. "If the Canadien organization was all it was cracked up to be," says Glen Cole, a Canadien radio announcer, "it never would have put itself in the position of having to trade for a left wing. I think the Canadiens panicked."
Walter has been everything Montreal expected, but the player most responsible for the rejuvenation of Lafleur (five goals, eight assists) has been Lafleur's and Walter's center, Doug Wickenheiser, the first choice in the 1980 draft. After two seasons of bench detail Wickenheiser has blossomed into one of the NHL's scoring leaders with eight goals and seven assists. Further, he has developed into the face-off expert that Montreal lost with the departure of Jarvis.
Besides Wickenheiser, Montreal's biggest surprise has been its defense, which, excluding an 8-7 loss to Chicago, has barely missed Engblom and Langway. Green, after reporting for duty weighing a beefy 225, missed the first three games of the season with a back injury, a malady some insiders believe Montreal management concocted to give Green time to get himself into shape. Be that as it may, he's playing now and playing well.
Green's partner is Craig Ludwig, who last season played for North Dakota's NCAA championship team. A native of Rhinelander, Wis., Ludwig is big (6'3", 212 pounds), steady and poised—like Bill Nyrop, the U.S.-bred defenseman who was a member of three Stanley Cup champion teams in Montreal in the late '70s. "Anyone who says Ludwig hasn't been a surprise just isn't telling the truth," says Montreal Coach Bob Berry. "He's come here out of college and has been one of our steadiest defensemen."
Robinson is determined to return to his All-Star form following an off-season in 1981-82, but after him the Montreal defense seems thin. Gilbert Delorme, 19, has a bright future, but he can be knocked off the puck right now, and 20-year-old Ric Nattress can become rattled. Robert Picard, 25, and Gaston Gingras, 23, can shoot and skate like All-Stars, but they make so many mental blunders that they are becoming known as Alphonse and Gaston. Gingras' nickname, in fact, is Gaston La Gaffe.
Still, Montreal has allowed an average of only three goals a game, second fewest in the NHL. Defense is a team responsibility, and Berry has the Canadiens playing a disciplined man-on-man system in their own zone. Says Washington's Murray, "When forwards are coming back to help, it's difficult for a young defenseman to get into too much trouble unless he makes just a brutal play."
So who got the better end of the deal? Don't be deceived by Montreal's fast start. Last season the Canadiens played their first 10 games without a loss. They have unquestionably helped themselves offensively, but Montreal is still a one-line team, and one-line clubs don't win Stanley Cups unless the defense and goaltending are magnificent. One has to wonder if the Canadiens' defense wouldn't have been exactly that had they stood pat with Langway, Engblom, Robinson and the emergent Ludwig.
As for the Capitals, they only have to make the playoffs for the trade to be regarded a success—a goal that's far from secure, considering their 2-5-1 record at week's end. Says Engblom, "Right now the trade's being analyzed on a day-to-day basis, but you have to wait several months to really judge it. They're never going to stop analyzing it."