For six years and 18 games, the Montreal newspapers have utilized a standard headline for visits of the Washington Capitals. There have been variations depending on language or space requirements, but it invariably reads something like: "Lowly Capitals Visit Forum."
Writers do not compose newspaper headlines, editors do. But if the big type over this story were writer-originated, it would say "Lowly Canadiens Visit Centre."
The Montreal Canadiens come to Capital Centre for a 7:30 p.m. engagement with the Capitals tonight. They bring with them an 0-2 record that gives them a share of last place, unfamiliar territory for a team that has embraced the Stanley Cup 22 times, completing a four-year sweep as recently as 1979.
For the first time since 1938 the Canadiens have lost their first two games of the National Hockey League season.
Defeat No. 1 came at the Forum Saturday night, by a 5-4 score to Chicago. That marked the Canadiens' first loss in a home opener since 1952, their first setback in an opening game on anyone's ice since 1962.
Sunday night in Boston the Canadien's, whose play Saturday had been described as "brutal" by one Montreal writer, improved their act. The result was the same, however, a 3-2 loss to the Bruins.
The chief problem for the Canadiens so far has been the same one that led to their quarterfinal elimination by Minnesota in last season's Stanley Cup playoffs -- the absence of Guy Lafleur.
Lafleur pulled a hamstring during training camp and received permission to skate only today, which effectively keeps him out of tonight's contest. He will not be missed by the Capitals, whom he has embarrassed with 31 goals and 35 assists in 35 games.
Another absentee tonight is defenseman Larry Robinson, who found himself on the ice during all five of Chicago's goals Saturday. Robinson was bedeviled by a pulled groin muscle in training camp and the Canadiens have decided to rest him until is is completely sound.
Center Pierre Mondou will not play until December, after suffering a torn Achilles' tendon while playing racquetball during the offseason.
On the plus side for Montreal, center Doug Wickenheiser, the No. 1 selection in the June entry draft, is expected to make his NHL debut tonight, wearing No. 25. Wickenheiser started out well during the exhibition campaign, but he tailed off and spent the first two regular-season games in the press box.
Wickenheiser played at Regina last year along with Darren Veitch, the first-round Capital draftee who has played sound if unspectacular hockey in Washington's first two games.
While Veitch has been able to work his way into the NHL with a minimum of fuss, Wickenheiser is living in a glass cage and there is speculation that the Canadiens waited for a road game against one of the NHL's lesser lights to begin his break-in procedure.
Many French-speaking Montrealers wanted the Canadiens to choose hometown hero Denis Savard, who wound up in Chicago. Their feelings were reinforced when Savard skated into the Forum Saturday and scored an important goal in the Hawks' upset victory.
Ron Caron, the Canadiens' director of recruitment and player personnel, was at Capital Centre the other night to scout the Capitals. Of the Wickenheiser selection he said, "We went for the best player, it's that simple. Doug Wickenheiser is only 19, but he has size, speed to go with it and some great moves.
"It was not an easy decision, because we had to consider Denis Savard and David Babych. But we felt Wickenheiser had more natural talent. We will need two or three years to find out if we were right. It's tougher to break in on certain clubs than others and I must say our club is not the easiest to break in on."
Montreal was not an easy team for the Capitals to break into the victory column against, either. It was not until their 35th meeting, last season at Capital Centre on Feb. 19, that Washington won one. The overall record, including 18 straight Montreal victories at the Forum, reads 32-1-3, with the Canadiens outscoring the Capitals, 202-61.
For the Capitals, this will be the second of seven straight games against teams that finished in the top 10 a year ago.
"I believe we have the toughest early schedule of any team in the league," said Washington General Manager Max McNab. "I'm not complaining, though. We have to play them sometime and I would just as soon do it now. We're in excellent shape and we've come out of training camp with a lot of spark."
A final note: In 1938, the last time the Canadiens lost their first two games, they also lost the next five and did not record a victory until Nov. 27.