Indeed, through the first five games, these kinder, gentler Nordiques and Canadiens did not engage in a fistfight, and sticks, by and large, remained down. One of the few cheap shots—an overtime slash to the forearm of Brian Bellows by Quebec defenseman Curtis Leschyshyn—led to the winning goal on a power play in Game 3. "The reporters would like it to get nasty so they'd have more to write about," Bellows said afterward. "But it hasn't been a nasty series."
Quebec, which had a better record on the road than at home this season, took the opening two games in Le Colis�e but needed some crucial mistakes by Canadien goaltender Patrick Roy to do so. Employing a rope-a-dope offense—sitting back, then counterattacking—the Canadiens led 2-0 in Game 1 with less than three minutes left. Then Montreal winger Gilbert Dionne gave the Nordiques fresh legs when he took a needless elbowing penalty. Pag� pulled Hextall to give the Nordiques a two-man advantage, and with their net open, Quebec defied the odds to score twice in the last minute and a half (the second was a softie through Roy's legs) to send the game into overtime. Young scored the game-winner on a wraparound that bounced in off Roy.
Game 2 was all Quebec as the Nordiques scored three goals in the opening period—two by Young, who was the beneficiary of another matador job by Roy—then bottled up the Canadiens the rest of the way, coasting to a 4-1 win. This time it was Montreal that provided the empty effort. "If Patrick Roy lets in a bad goal, does that mean we stop playing?" Canadien coach Jacques Demers inquired during the postgame press conference.
In Montreal the hometown fans had pretty much written off the Habs. With a 6-9 record over the last month of the season. Demers's charges had limped into the playoffs. They had allowed almost four goals a game over that 15-game stretch, which saw them fall from first to third in the Adams Division. Demers, who a few weeks before had banned all newspapers (except USA Today) from the Montreal dressing room because he believed critical press reports were hurting his team, now found himself lampooned on a daily basis by Montreal's La Presse. A full-page caricature on April 21 depicted Demers as a downcast Napoleon, retreating to Montreal after the back-to-back drubbings in Quebec. The next day Pag� was drawn coming into town on a steamroller, wearing a Viking helmet, flattening Canadiens who fled in terror before the barbarians at their gates.
Unfortunately for Nordique fans, Pag�'s helmeted hoards played more like they were waging the battle of Sesame Street than the Battle of Quebec after they arrived in Montreal. The most vicious territorial struggle of Game 3 came during the pregame warmup, when Montreal's Mario Roberge stood his ground over the center-ice dot. It seems the superstitious Hextall must skate over the aforementioned dot before every game. Twice as Hextall approached it, Roberge slashed him on the pads. Jawboning ensued. Threats were made. Then Roberge was jostled by Quebec's Owen Nolan—his hardest hit of the night. In the old days, a bench-clearing brawl would have erupted, and 600 minutes in penalties would have been assessed. Not in the '90s. Hextall touched his dot, the prospective combatants dispersed to their sandboxes, and the third game was able to begin.
After the teams exchanged goals, both Roy and Hextall were spectacular, but it was Hextall who endured more pressure. "The first two games we just played too defensively," Canadien forward Kirk Muller said after Game 3. "We decided to go after them more."
The game went into OT, where Hextall stoned the Canadiens from in close time after time. In the first 10 minutes of overtime, the Canadiens had 12 shots on net from 10 different players, not including a goal that was disallowed because Stephan Lebeau batted it in with a high stick. Finally, on their 50th shot of the game, the Canadiens got their second goal—a lucky one that bounced in off Nordique defenseman Alexei Gusarov's skate after Hextall had kicked out a shot by Vincent Damphousse. Montreal, trailing two games to one, was back in the series.
Pag� hoped his players at that point would take their cue from Montreal. "People will do things at this time of year that they won't do the rest of the year," he said. "Some of our guys don't realize how far they can push themselves."
But in Game 4 the unheralded Montreal forwards continued to carry the play, buzzing around the puck, mucking and grinding in the corners, while the flashier Nordiques—Mats Sundin, Martin Rucinsky, Valeri Kamensky, Joe Sakic—carved attractive half-moons in the ice, hoping to make pretty plays. Yet despite being outshot by the Canadiens 30-15 in the first two periods, the Nordiques, thanks to Hextall, found themselves tied 2—all. Sixty-seven seconds into the final frame, however, Benoit Brunet picked up a rebound and, with Hextall fallen, put the game-winner in the open net. Said Muller, "Hextall's been coming up big, but our attitude is, Don't get frustrated, keep shooting. If you keep working, hopefully you get a break."
In the Nordique dressing room, the meaning of playoff hockey was just beginning to sink in. "We've been relying on Ron way too much," said Young, who had scored Quebec's first goal in Game 4. "Talented guys can muck and grind too. Talented guys can hit guys, pin them to the boards, dump the puck out, finish their checks. If they force us to play that way, that's the way we have to play. It really humbles you, going up two-zero, then losing two straight."