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Phil Goyette of the New York Rangers had just scored to tie the fourth game of the Stanley Cup playoffs at 1-1. The Montreal Canadiens held a three-game lead in the best-of-seven series but the bigger, slower Rangers were body checking and harassing Montreal's lithe skaters so well that they seemed to be taking charge of the game. Still not quite convinced that the Rangers' dramatic one-season ascent from last place to the playoffs could really end in a humiliating four-game defeat, the exuberant Madison Square Garden crowd picked up a chant of "We're not dead yet." And when Henri Richard drew a tripping penalty that set up a New York power play the Rangers and their fans both felt very much alive.
Seconds later New York's Harry Howell steered a near-perfect pass toward Donnie Marshall, who was free in front of the net. Montreal Defenseman J. C. Tremblay dived to the ice and broke up a play that might have put his club behind. Another play started as the puck was passed along the boards. Tremblay, smallest defenseman on the Canadiens, elbowed his way between two opponents and took possession. Then he avoided two checks, skated smoothly toward his blue line and lofted the puck the length of the rink to kill the remaining moments in the period and end the Ranger threat.
It was a typical clutch performance by a man who is a typical Montreal Canadien: fairly small but very quick, a brilliant skater and stickhandler, and—most of all—a player who is at his best under the pressures of the Stanley Cup playoffs. Bothered by injuries, Tremblay played poorly in the first half of this season. He had what he considers a "fair last two months." But in the playoffs he has been simply tremendous, stabilizing
The entire Canadien team is playing better than ever now that the big money—$5,250 a man to the Stanley Cup winners—is there to be taken. In that fourth game Montreal ultimately overcame a supreme effort by the Rangers and won in sudden-death overtime 2-1, to complete the sweep.
The Canadiens will take a 10-game winning streak into this week's final series against Chicago or Toronto, and since they are healthy and both their possible foes are pretty well battered, they will probably be favored to capture their third straight cup. The swift and smooth machine that destroyed the Rangers bore no resemblance at all to the crippled and discouraged group that stumbled along in fourth place for most of the year before the playoff money came in sight.
But there is more involved in the Montreal surge than cash. When you are talking in terms of thousands of dollars it may seem superfluous to credit victories to any tradition or mystique—but in Montreal the mystique is not superfluous at all. It is the basis of the club's success. "There is no doubt that this team is very proud," says Jean Béliveau, the captain, who predictably rose to the occasion with two goals and three assists against New York. "We represent all of French Canada, and we know that a lot of people are counting on us. And we are very conscious of the tradition we must keep up. There were some good men here before us, you know."
Twenty years ago Béliveau sat by a radio and listened to the feats of Rocket Richard and Elmer Lach and Toe Blake, who is now the Montreal coach. A decade later kids like Jacques Laperrière and Yvan Cournoyer worshiped a hero named Jean Béliveau. Even the English-speaking players who join the club are swept up in the tradition that is passed down to every young hockey player in French Canada, the tradition that only two things in hockey are truly worthwhile—playing for Les Canadiens and winning the Stanley Cup. "I've been telling the younger players," says Béliveau, who is 35, "that they shouldn't miss any chance they have to win the cup. Look at a man like Bill Gadsby, who played 20 years and never was with a cup winner. That's a shame. Nobody should miss the experience of winning it."
Béliveau, a gentle and sensitive man who is undoubtedly the most respected figure in all hockey, is acutely aware of his role as captain. "When I first came up," he says, "Butch Bouchard was captain. Then it was the Rocket, then Doug Harvey and then myself. I'm following some great men and I want to be a service to the team. Being the oldest, I know that all the other players will keep going at top speed as long as they see me doing my best."
All the Canadiens had to go at top speed to beat New York last week; the Rangers played well, and the one-sided result is deceptive. "We won in four straight," said Blake, "but they were four close games that we could have lost. Even when we had them down by three games and scored the first goal in the fourth the Rangers never quit."
For the first two and a half periods of the opening game in Montreal it appeared that the Rangers had their eyes on the big money, too. Rod Gilbert, the team's leading goal-getter, had slumped throughout the second half of the season but he scored two goals to lead the Rangers to a 4-1 advantage. Then, with 10:48 to go, Claude Provost shoved a fluke goal through Ed Giacomin's pads from the side of the net. Only 22 seconds later J. C. Tremblay scored on a long deflected slap shot, and the panic was on. Giacomin was visibly shaken, the Ranger forwards suddenly seemed immobile, and the defensemen offered little resistance to the deluge of Montreal skaters rushing at them. "After Provost's goal we hardly seemed to touch the puck," groaned Coach Emile Francis, who led New York into the playoffs for the first time in five years. "I was wishing I could have called a time-out." The Canadiens wound up with five goals in a nine-minute span and a 6-4 triumph.