Reprinted from yesterday's late edition.
The Montreal Canadiens, twice two goals behind, had to call on hockey's greatest player for a truly great goal last night to defeat the Washington Capitals, 4-3.
Guy Lafleur, somehow controlling a pass as he swept behind the Washington defense, pulled goalie Jim Bedard from side to side and fired the puck behind him with 6:32 remaining. It was Lafleur's 50th goal of the season, his fourth straight half-century campaign.
Five minutes earlier, a Serge Savard slap shot struck Lafleur's skate and caromed just inside the post to pull the Canadiens even for the first time since the two-minute mark of the first period.
Washington had checked the National Hockey League's elite squad expertly throughout, paying particular attention to Lafleur. He paid it back, rateling Bryan Watson and even dumping Bedard with a legal check that brought Watson raging to his goaltender's defense.
"It was very frustrating for us," Lafleur said. "They checked us very well. It's the first time they ever played like that against us. If they played like that all the time, they'd be in the Stanley Cup playoffs for sure."
For the Capitals, it was small consolation that they had played so well. Instead, there was the momory of so many shots that came so close.
With Washington leading, 3-1, Robert Picard lined a drive off a goal post. With the score 3-2 early in the third period, Ace Bailey took a Gerry Meehan setup in front and hit another post. Moments later, after goaltender Bunny Larocque had stopped Watson's blast, Picard's re-bound struck a post. Moments later, Larocque stopped Bailey on a break-away. And, with just 25 seconds left and Bedard off for a sixth skater, the Capitals' pressure was squeezed dry when Bailey fired a backhander off yet another post.
Bailey had scored the second Washington goal on a pass from the corner that struck defenseman Serge Savard in the ankle and caromed into the net.
"Can you believe that?" Bailey asked. "Score from behind the net and miss two breakaways. And those posts. That backhander with the empty net was just too much."
"I should have had at least five points, with all the shots and chances I had," Picard said. "When I hit the post on that power play when we were two ahead, that had to be one of the turning points. It's tough, but we've got to live with it."
Coach Tom McVie, disappointed as always with defeat, nevertheless said, "Wasn't that great? This hockey club took some giant steps tonight. It was a great hockey game. It would have been nice to win."
The Capitals have led the Canadians before in a winless, tieless series that has now produced 22 Montreal victories.So it was no reason to be optimistic when Bob Girard and Bailey sent Washington into its 2-0 lead after just 4:25.
The confident manner with which the Capitals were playing, however, gradually built up hope that possibly the man upstairs who plays with the human hearstrings had finally decided that enough suffering was enough.
Even when Bill Riley unwisely protested an interference penalty, drawing an added minor that provided Montreal with a power-play goal, the Capitals refused to lie down and scream foul. They roared right back, Rick Bragnalo rebounding a Tom Rowe shot less than three minutes later for a 3-1 lead.
A freak play cut the margin in half. Yvon Cournoyer sailed the puck toward the Washington goal and the Capitals' Bill Collins reflexively raised his stick to block it. He deflected the puck into the slot and Doug Risebrough grabbed it and beat Bedard with a backhander.
"You might know it wouldn't deflect into the corner, but right in the hole," Collins said. "We deserved a better fate than that."
Fate. however, hasn't thrown many fast balls in the Capitals' direction. Lafleur's tying goal was a real curve, that fast billard bounce off his skate.
There was nothing cheap about No. 50, however. Guy Lapointe turned the play around near the red line and Lafleur reacted instantly, cutting across the blue at the same time as the puck and showing his great stickhandling ability to send the 15.017 fans into a frenzy.
"I almost lost the puck," Lafleur said. "I think he (Bedard) thought I would lose the puck, that's why he came out so far. Fifty goals still means something. It's tough to say before the season starts that you'll score 50 goals. It's nice. It gets off some of the pressure a little bit."
Winners must fight pressure, too. But there's nothing quite like the pressure of losing, and that's 41 defeats for the Capitals. Montreal hasn't lost that many in the last four seasons combined. Still, McVie could be satisfied with one thing.
"What I'm pleased with," he said, "is the way the hockey club followed the game plan. The example was to play the Canadiens like Jimmy Young fought Kenny Norton. Don't slug it out in the middle of the ring, but stick and move, tie the other team up, stay close to your check. Our hockey club gave one hell of an effort."