One of the most satisfying pursuits that falls to the purebred fan of any sport is to sit back when a long league season has run its course and lovingly put his finger on the particular turn of events that decided the winning and the losing of a race. Was it, he asks himself, that double-header in July which Roger Craig and Don Bessent, those first-time-out rookies, won with masterful jobs that really assured the success of the faltering 1955 Dodgers? Was it those back-to-back homers by Bauer and Berra in the ninth that pulled out that "lost" game against Boston on September 16 and shoved the 1955 Yankees back in first for good? Frequently it is hard and many times it is downright impossible to decide what was the Gettysburg of a campaign, the elements being so numerous and their significance so debatable; but nearly everyone who has followed the current National Hockey League season is fairly well agreed that the outcome of the race was decided conclusively on the three nights of January 29, February 2 and February 4.
On those three nights Les Canadiens of Montreal, who had led the league from October on, opposed their ancient tormentors, the Detroit Red Wings, winners of the NHL championship for the last seven years. In capturing quite a number of these pennants, the Red Wings started more slowly than the Canadiens, gradually cut the point difference between them as the season bruised on, and, winning the key games, closed with a rush that had the quality of inevitability about it.
FULL-FED WITH BONNIE CHARLIE
Only last year, you may remember, after L'Affaire Richard, the dispirited Canadiens kicked away their excellent chances for the championship by losing two of their last three games (those two to Detroit) while the Wings flew down the stretch with 10 victories and two ties in their last 12 games. Late this past January, with Detroit coming on fast and Montreal playing somewhat less commanding hockey after suffering its first slump of the season, everyone was wondering if history would repeat itself another time.
It did not. The first game, in Detroit, ended in a 1-1 tie. The Canadiens took the second game, in Detroit, 2-0. They took the third, in Montreal, 2-1. Having entered the series with a 10-point margin over the Wings, they emerged with a 15-point margin. The battle for first place was over past any reasonable doubt, and Montreal proceeded to draw farther and farther away. Only the Stanley Cup playoffs will tell—they start March 20—but it begins to appear that Les Canadiens mean to prove this year that, pleasant as it is to be recognized as one of the most colorful and popular teams in sport, they are full-fed with their old Bonnie Prince Charlie role and are un-romantically determined to win everything in sight, to rule.
In that important three-game series with Detroit, Maurice Richard scored one winning goal and Jean Beliveau scored the other four goals. There is no need to dwell on these facts. They are the expectable ones. At 35 The Rocket, a stride slower in the thighs and a split second slower in his wrists and eye than he was in his prime, is still The Rocket. It stands to reason that he will always score some of the big ones. Same thing with Beliveau (SI, Jan. 23). Even taking into account the continued greatness of Richard, Gordon Howe and Red Kelly, Beliveau is doubtless the finest all-round player in the game today and is beginning to emerge as a performer who can do more things and do them better than any other center in the full history of hockey. Nonetheless, despite the unquestioned contribution of Montreal's big scoring guns and of Bert (Old Elbows) Olmstead—that relentless puck-digger who has been almost as instrumental as Beliveau in making their line with Geoffrion the outstanding forward combination in the league—perhaps the least dispensable member of the team is the veteran defenseman, Doug Harvey.
Besides doing all the unglamorous, seldom-noticed chores that a good defenseman must perform, Harvey knows how to mount a play and the way he does so is perfect for the Canadiens' style of attack. Doug is not one of those weaving rink-length rushers, but no one loses less time starting a counterattack after breaking up a play and no one capitalizes more astutely on a jump. He is up to the other team's blue line in a twinkle, taking in the situation as he mushes forward, looking for his forwards and then, with a solid sense of maneuver, promoting a strong play by feeding the right man the right pass. He is wonderfully adroit also in handling his post at the points (just inside the blue line) on the famed Montreal power play, which does its stuff when the opposing team has a man in the penalty box. (With Geoffrion coming on at the other point and with Olmstead, Beliveau and Maurice Richard usually working up front in games through March 3 Montreal scored no less than 49 of its total 193 goals when enjoying a one-man advantage.)
All in all, Harvey is as complete a defenseman as there is. While you think you appreciate his value when you watch him, you really do not until he is out of the lineup with an injury. Then the Canadiens, star-studded as they are, have trouble getting the puck out of their own territory and the forward lines begin to skate, and over-skate, with much less purpose. Les Canadiens have experienced only one protracted slump this season, and it is more than coincidence that this drop in play began at about the same time Harvey was forced out with an injury in late December and that they began to find their touch again shortly after he returned to duty.
For several seasons now Harvey and Red Kelly of Detroit have been in a class of their own, a discernible cut above the other defensemen in the league. Kelly's style of play, of course, has always been an individual one. A marvelous, tireless skater, he has the energy and the speed and the maneuverability to serve not only as a stout defender but to double as a virtually cohesive part of the offense. This season " Detroit's fourth forward," as Kelly has been called for some time, was actually pressed into service as a forward. Jimmy Skinner, the Wings coach, made the move early in December, after his team had managed to win only 6 of its first 25 games and it seemed they might never get rolling. Skinner's second and third lines had not been producing at all, and he recognized that his first tactical adjustment—using his powerful first line of Howe, Reibel and Lindsay as often as they could climb over the boards—hadn't been getting him anyplace. Overwork was diminishing the H-R-L line's punch, and lack of work wasn't helping the confidence of his newly formed third line and the sluggishness of his second line. The defense had been functioning well, though. Pronovost had been playing fine hockey, Godfrey was doing all right, old Bob Goldham—he entered the NHL way back in 1941 with Toronto (can you believe it?)—was still getting around O.K.; furthermore, Larry Hillman, a very promising defenseman, could be recalled from the minors. So Skinner made his move. He switched Kelly to left wing on his first line and sent Lindsay down to juice up the second. It was a daring bit of juggling, and it worked. Almost overnight the Wings began to win at their customary clip, and until they dropped five out of those six points in that head-on series with Montreal, it looked as if they might be on their way to recapturing all of their old grinding efficiency.
As for Kelly, he was a revelation on left wing. He remained at that position for 26 games, until Pronovost was hurt and he had to be sent back to bolster the defense. Over that stretch Red scored 11 goals and assisted in 13 others, but these statistics barely intimate what an enormous amount of wing he played. One picture or, more accurately, one series of pictures remains clearly in my mind. It is Kelly back-checking with that effortless finesse of his, breaking up one enemy rush after another before they could even get started and generally creating the impression that progress up his side of the rink was virtually impossible, a road temporarily closed to traffic.