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"It seems in the playoffs, specialty teams win for you," goalie Brian Hayward says. "Our power play cost us a lot of games. It killed us against the Bruins. And we probably lost the Stanley Cup against the Flames the year before because they out power-played us and got a lot of big goals when they were a man up. Now we can say, 'Here, Denis. The power play is yours.' "
And so it is. Because he poses such a threat with his quick, darting style, defenders cheat toward him and create open ice elsewhere. He also has wondrous dexterity on his skates and with the puck. "Denis has great vision," says assistant coach Charles Thiffault. "But seeing something and being able to execute are two different things. He can execute."
Savard took gleeful charge in the Canadiens' exhibition games, positioning players and yelling for the puck. His voice rose an octave as it resonated around the Forum, making him sound not unlike Marge Simpson.
So, the fans have their god, the power play has Mr. Fixit, and Brian Skrudland, a defensive center who was Richer's caddie last season, can go back to a line to which his talents are better suited.
Now that Chelios is gone, the Canadiens also have a hole on defense you could drive a Zamboni through. Chelios missed 27 games last season because of injuries and his production was down compared with his Norris Trophy-winning season in 1988-89, but he was still the kind of player who made everyone around him a little better. Sort of gilt by association. The 28-year-old Chelios was almost always the Canadiens' best player on the road in the tough buildings, a measure of the man even if it is an attribute not easily quantified. Now the average age of the club's eight defensemen is 23, and Petr Svoboda is the only member of this corps who has played more than one full season in the Montreal fishbowl.
"The character of our team has changed," says Hayward. "It was always defense, defense, defense first. Before we'd go on the ice, sometimes a guy would say, 'Let's try to win 1-0.' And sometimes we did. Or 2-1. Or 3-2. Now it's going to be different. We don't have depth on defense. The team is small. Other teams will just dump the puck in and challenge the defense. Now we're going to have to try to win 4-3 and 5-4."
"I always liked Chelly," Burns says. "He was a leader. He wouldn't yell, 'C'mon, wake up.' He'd sit in the corner of the room by himself, drink his Coke and look at his teammates as if he was saying to himself, 'You guys make me sick to my stomach.' He'd hammer someone into the corner boards and then give a quick look over to the bench as if he was saying, 'C'mon people, what are you waiting for?' We gave up a junkyard dog who wouldn't back down from the world. I think Denis can also be a leader. But I think he's a guy who'll come into the room and say, 'What's your problem? Let's go out and play.' "
Just to make sure Savard got the hint, when the Canadiens opened their exhibition season in Stockholm, Burns gave captain Guy Carbonneau the night off and handed Savard the C for the game. When the Canadiens came home for their first preseason game in the Forum, Burns did the same thing.
The Savard gamble is risky. For all his 351 goals and 662 assists, he has never had his name on any of the NHL trophies, has never scored 50 goals in a season and has made the end-of-season All-Star team only once, for 1982-83, as a second-team selection. (Of course, his competition has been Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux.) And the Canadiens, who won the Jennings Trophy for fewest goals allowed in three of the past four seasons, are changing styles on the fly. Maybe it can work. Boston remade itself, reaching the Cup finals last season by injecting a healthy dose of discipline into a team known for its pugnacity, but Montreal is undergoing a personality transplant.
Meanwhile, Savard goes merrily about his work. He is the type of person who almost always sees the Stanley Cup as half full instead of half empty, but lately he has been unusually euphoric. For the first time, he worked out with weights over the summer—thank you, Mike Keenan—because he knows that, at 29, he is no longer in the first blush of youth. He did extra skating in July. He comes early to practice. He talks to his teammates nonstop.