Except for a slight shuffle in the sorry Smythe Division, the final National Hockey League standings mirrored those of a year ago, 1-2-3 down the line in the other three divisions. The Stanley Cup playoffs, which begin tonight and no later than May 26, are likely to resemble the 1976 version, too.
Montreal, beaten only once in 13 playoff games last season, is everyone's selection to repeat. If the Canadiens have a weakness, no intrepid Columbus has yet proclaimed its discovery. But more disturbing than the promise of another Montreal runaway is the repetitive nature of the pairings.
Of the best-of-three first-round matchups, the most interesting are Pittsburgh-Toronto and Los Angeles-Atlanta, just as they were last year. Should the Maple Leafs and Kings repeat their 1976 successes, the quarterfinals will see three holdover pairings, with the only change being Smythe champion St. Louis' availability as Montreal's cannon fodder, rather than Chicago.
If favoritism were to prevail the rest of the way, it would again be Montreal-New York Islanders and Boston-Philadelphia in the semifinals, with the Canadiens and Flyers in the final.
The roadblock to that final rematch is Boston. The Bruins survived a pair of playoff-type confrontations on the road last week and must be considered as potential finalists, if not champions.
First the Bruins conquered Buffalo, 4-3, on Wednesday, then they trimmed the Islanders, 5-3, Saturday. Consequently they edged Buffalo by two points for the Adams Division title and exemption from two-of-three jeopardy. Boston also caught the Islanders in points and, with more victories, achieved third-place status overall.
Since all pairings are determined on regular-season points (highest meeting lowest, etc.), that left the islanders, rather than Boston, contemplating a rugged quarterfinal with Buffalo followed by the specter of a Montreal semifinal.
The first round will be played Tuesday, Thursday and, if necessary, Saturday, alternating sites. The four winners will point the four division champions in the quarterfinals starting Monday. Here is the outlook for the four preliminary series.
Chicago at New York Islanders
The Black Hawks, plagued by injuries all season, struggled into the playoffs with 63 points, only one more than the Washington Capitals. Chicago nipped Smythe compatriot Vancouver, which also posted 63, on the strength of one more victory
Besides its obvious manpower problem, Chicago doesn't have a place to play Thursday's game since the Led Zeppelin has first call on Chicago Stadium. All games will be played in New York.
The Hawks cannot be totally discounted because of goalie Tony Esposito, whose heroics two years ago enabled Chicago to eliminate Boston, although outshot in the deciding game, 56-19.
The Islanders yielded only 193 goals, second behind Montreal, and are led by capable defenseman Denis Potvin, the team scoring leader with 80 points.
The Islanders won the season series, 3-1-1, but needed a late rally to put out a 2-2 tie at Nassau Coliseum two weeks ago.
Radio: 670, but reception is poor. Minnesota at Buffalo
The Sabres teetered on the brink in last year's first round, needing two overtime victories to beat the Blues after dropping the opener in St. Louis. That experience should be enough of a period to get the sometimes lethargic Sabres moving.
This series should provide valuable experience for the many young North stars, but a Minnesota victory is almost inconceivable. Buffalo had a 2-1-1 season edge, dropping a 4-3 decision in the January game that followed its upset loss to Washington.
Radio: pretty good on 830. Atlanta at Los Angeles
Just as they did a year ago, the Flames came within one goal of home-ice advantage with an eastern opponent, only to wind up on the short end of a debilitating coast-to-coast series. Sunday's 3-3 tie with Philadelphia, in which the Flames led by 3-1 and had a 44-20 shooting edge, must carry its accompanying disappointment into playoff action.
The Kings prevailed by 2-1 and 1-0 in last year's series and this one should follow the pattern. Both teams are capable of tight defensive play and both like to play the body. The Kings' big advantages are the superior goaltending of Rogie Vachon (2-72) and the NHL's most effective power play, anchored by point man Marcel Dionne, the NHL's No. 2 scorer with 122 points.
Although the season series was a 2-2 split, Los-Angeles has the momentum of a six-game unbeaten streak in its favor. Atlanta is an erratic team, unable to sustain a winning effort.
Radio: good reception on 750.
Toronto at Pittsburgh
This is the series all Canada is watching closely, and outside Toronto most of the folks are rooting for the Penguins. The reason is the desire to add the Leafs' great line of Darryl Sittler, Lanny McDonald and Errol Thompson to Team Canada for the World Championships that begin in Vienna APril 21.
Toronto ousted Pittsburgh in three games last year, then waged a gallant quarterfinal battle gain the Flyers. The Leafs could repeat that performance if rookie goalie Mike Palmateer holds up under his first dose of Stanley Cup pressure.
The Penguins are the least penalized team in the NHL and the Leafs are likely to throw their muscle around. Pittsburgh's power play has been abominable, third worst after Detroit and Washington, so Toronto can probably get away with considerable intimidation.
Pittsburgh prevailed in a tight season series, 2-1-2, and can win here with maximum effort. That's something the Penguins' fans have been vainly seeking all year. Regardless, this is the best of the first-round matchups.
Radio: 1020 sounds fine.
Chicago vs. New York Islanders, 8:05 p.m.
New York Islanders vs. Chicago, site to be announced
Chicago at New York Islanders, 8:05, if necessary
Minnesota at Buffalo, 8:05 p.m.
Buffalo at Minnesota, 9:05 p.m.
Minnesota at Buffalo, 8:05 p.m., if necessary
Atlanta at Los Angeles, 11:05 p.m.
Los Angeles at Atlanta, 8:05 p.m.
Atlanta at Los Angeles, 11:05 p.m., if necessary
Totonto at Pittsburgh, 7:35 p.m.
Pittsburgh at Toronto, 8:05 p.m.
Totonot at Pittsburgh, 7:35 p.m., if necessary