Montreal, Islanders Favorites for Cup
All summer long, you wait for it. Baseball is unquestionably baseball, but it can get on your nerves after a while and besides, it's not hockey. The Stanley Cup play-offs of the previous year seem a distant memory, and something, anything, is needed for a fix. Maybe it's some international game on PBS, or a highlight film at three in the morning. Most likely, though, there's nothing until the first week of October and opening day has arrived. The hockey mindset grabs you, and that's it.
And then--zap--the six months are gone. The 1978-79 season was ground into the ice by a paroxysm of excitement Sunday night, as the playoffs finally sorted themselves out and the final game--number 680--determined the team with the best record.
Not until the golf-course bound Red Wings stunned the Hubs, 1-0, and the I's came alive to subdue the Rangers, 5-2, was it all over. New York Islanders numero uno (116), Montreal Canadiens, for the first time in four years, not so (115).
And any regular season that has fans desperate to find out what's going on even after the last goal has been tallied, the last penalty whistled and the last game decided, can't be all bad.
Of course, there were some less than bright spots. Super Series '79, a media extravaganza in the guise of a three-game battle between the Soviet National Team and the best the NHL had to offer, ended in a humiliating 6-0 victory for the poised, tireless, quick-passing rink-rats from Moskva amd environs. Attendance declined notably in some NHL cities, and why Colorado still has a franchise when about 5000 fans show up per game--some by accident, no doubt--remains a mystery.
Taking early season observers by surprise, the Atlanta Flames got off to one of the best starts in NHL history, but soon returned to their customary position of a good team that has yet to prove itself. In Manhattan, transplanted (Flyer fans would say "stolen") coach Fred Shero led his team of born-again veterans, kids and millionaire Swedes to a strong season, though a late slump drew second-place in the Patrick division and tempered the rampant optimism that permeated Garden conversation earlier in the year.
Meanwhile, as the coaching job altered from Bob McCammon to tough-guy Pat Quinn, Philadelphia jettisoned some familiar faces, beat back impending mediocrity and finished with the fourth best record in the league.
But above the rest of the Patrick the New York Islanders finally converted confidence into performance, and obtained the consistency and intensity they lacked in previous seasons. With Resch and Smith keeping the nets safe, Potvin & Co. clearing the zone and Bossy-Trottier-Gillies a scoring machine, the Islanders needed primarily to work on one thing: attitude. Two late season victories against Montreal gave the team a big boost as the playoffs approached.
Oh yeah, Montreal. They proved themselves human this year, often disappointing fans even in victory. But everyone knows the Canadiens have the talent and character to be there when the Cup is decided. They will be.
In a season-long battle of surprisingly competent also-rans, Pittsburgh outlasted L.A. for the "Rest of the Norris" Division. Making a series of shrewd deals calculated to get a winner on the ice and fans in the building, the Pens accumulated a not-insubstantial amount of talent that sometimes made life tough for the rest of the league. The Kings, on the other hand, ostensibly rebuilding slowly, managed an unexpectedly respectable year with offensive help from point-freak Marcel Dionne and sophomore Clarkson grad Dave Taylor. Both squads may surprise in the prelims. Detroit, which plummeted, and Washington, which inched forward, won't be there.
And what about the Bruins, the Adams Division champs from North Station? Players and fans are wondering. Though plagued by injuries, Boston nonetheless jumped off to a superb first half of the year and challenged Montreal and the Islanders for the league's best record until suffering a cold shut-down in January. Bruins need to get back on the line in a hurry, or will not even get the privilege of losing to Montreal in the semis.
Toronto, scheduled to challenge Boston for the Adams crown, finished third, while Buffalo, scheduled to disintegrate, grabbed second. The Maple Leafs, still under the rule of Field Marshall Hallard Ballard and unnerved by the imminent sacking of popular coach Roger Neilson, stumbled and struggled all year while Buffalo survived.
The Smythe Division, as expected, fulfilled its primary function in life: providing amusement for the rest of the league. Chicago, St. Louis, and Colorado all suffered disappointing seasons, while Vancouver went from worse to bad.
But it's all history and lit now. As Guy "The Flower" Shakespeare once said, "the playoff's the thing."