I guess there's no surprise about picking Montreal to win the Stanley Cup. You can look at the standings and see why. I can't imagine any team being able to withstand the pressure they put on, not just in one game but over an entire series.

Montreal has too much strength on the front line, at the blue line and in the net to realistically expect anybody to bump them off. They have an extremely powerful offense, the league's two top goal scorers, the leading scorer overall and the highest scoring defenseman. In addition to scorers like Guy Lafleur, Steve Shutt and Larry Robinson, they have other good players all down the line, and they also have talented people who can check, like Doug Jarvis, Bob Gainey and Jim Roberts.

Their goaltending won the Vezina Trophy. And they're tough. They play clean hockey, but they hit you. In last year's final, they set the pace of the series early. They showed Philadelphia there would be no fooling around as far as the physical stuff.

They're a complete team, well-disciplined, well-coached, a well-oiled machine. Of course, somebody can always throw sand in the machinery. You'd think they'd have reason to be complacent, but it hasn't happened.

The second echelon of the league would be the Flyers, Buffalo, Boston and the New York Islanders. Anyone of the four would have a chance if something happened to Montreal.

Buffalo is closest to Montreal in offensive firepower but it's a less experienced team and the goaltending and defense are not up to Montreal's.

Buffalo get good leadership from Jim Schoenfeld and guys like Gil Perreault, Richard Martin, Andre Savard and Rene Robert always get inspired when they play Montreal. They have other players like Don Luce and Craig Ramsay who do a good job, too, but I just don't think Buffalo has the stability or defensive strength to survive a series against Montreal.

We've proven Buffalo can be had. They have a tendency to experience off games. Last year they were almost eliminated by St. Louis and then lost to the Islanders after having them down, 2-0. Complacency can set in with the Sabree.

Philadelphia can win it all. The Flyers have a better defense than Buffalo and better goaltending, but not Buffalo's firepower. Still, in a playoff series, the better defensive team stands up more than those that depend on offense.

What goes against Philadelphia is that Montreal loves to beat them. The Canadians have too much of a thing going against the Flyers to let them win. Montreal knows Philly won two cups in a row and it puts more into a game with Philly. There's an intense rivalry there, maybe even a hatred.

Bobby Clarke and Rick MacLeish are the keys fro Philly, especially MacLeish. He's the closest thing to a superstar they've got. He's a natural scorer and an excellent skater. Clarke makes up for a lot with his hustle. The Flyers have improved their defense with Bob Dailey and Rick Lapointe, but they're not as solid as Montreal, not as explosive. In a four-, five-, six-, or seven-game series, Montreal will wear them down.

Boston has shown it has the ability to beat Montreal and everybody has been saying what a tough series it would be. But the way Montreal handled Boston a couple of weeks ago makes me think they can do it again whenever they have to.

Boston is the least impressive of the second group of four, but it is also the hardest working and therefore the most dangerous. Jean Ratelle, Peter McNab and Brad Park are the only real stars, but Gerry Cheevers in goal is a great playoff performer. And one of the big reasons for their success is the play of Wayne Cashman and Terry O'Reilly in the corners. They were overpowering our guys and feeding the puck in for scores. If one of those two gets hurt, forget it.

Boston has a winning attitude. The players expect to win and that's a big plus in the playoffs. THe defense is not in the same league with Montreal's but the Bruins have overcome a lot of weaknesses with sheer hustle and hard work. They're a fairly complete team, but not quite as good as they have to be to beat Montreal.

Montreal seemed to dispose of teh Islanders pretty easily during the regular season. The Islanders have two stars in Denis Potvin and Chico Resch, but they're not as overpowering as last year. Bryan Trottier, Clark Gillies and Villy Harris have all had their problems.

Still, they are very solid, they make very few mistakes, they play well in the other team's zone and they know their assignments and carry them out.

Their defensemen are only as good as the other team lets them be. If you let them move the puck at will, they're tough beat. We were able to get to their defense by aggressive fore-checking.

Los Angeles could be a sleeper. They really impressed me in the second half of the season. They got momentum and passed Pittsburgh, after bing 20 points behind two months ago.

THey play a solid, steady, unspectacular game that pays off in the playoffs. The defense is not special, but gets the puck out of the zone as quickly as possible. But they have Marcel Dionne setting up the scoring opportunities and with Regie Vachon's ability to stop pucks they are dangerous to anyone who takes them lightly.

Toronto has the one big line with Darryl Sittler, Errol Thompson and Lanny McDonald. You can neutralize it by severe heavy checking. We've done that and beat them fairly convincingly.

Borje Salming and Ian Turnbull, their high-scoring defensemen, have great offensive ability, but defensively they're suspect. The jury is still out on the young goalie, Mike Palmateer. Otherwise, they are average players. They gave Philly trouble last year, but they're not good enough to go to the finals.

The others will just serve as warm-ups for the better teams. Most of them look forward not to winning but just going as far as they can. That helps boost next year's ticket sales, but that's about all.

Atlanta is a very young team, not quite ready for big things. Tom Lysick, Eric Vail and Willi Plott are good and the goaltending is adequate. They play a steady, businesslike game and they can be trouble. But they tend to play one good game, then two bad ones. Maybe the playoffs will inspire them.

Pittsburgh has a lot of ability, but doesn't seem to come up with the big games when they need them. Minnesota had a great season just getting into the playoffs. St. Louis and Chicago don't have enough all-around ability. They'll all be home for an early game of golf.