Coach Jack Evans of the Hartford Whalers isn't known for speaking many words or for his beaming smile, but tonight he offered a bit of each. "Mike Liut gave us a performance they'll be talking about for a while," Evans said.
The cause of his relative euphoria was Liut's 1-0 shutout of the Montreal Canadiens in front of 15,126 at Civic Center, tying the best-of-seven Adams Division final series at three games each. The seventh game will be Tuesday night in Montreal, with the winner taking on the New York Rangers in the Prince of Wales Conference final series.
Liut had been out of action since Game 3, which he left at 12:02 of the first period because of a bruised right knee. Tonight he faced nearly twice as many shots (32-17) as counterpart Patrick Roy and foiled a few excellent Montreal opportunities.
"If he doesn't play that way, we don't win that game," said the Whalers' Kevin Dineen, who more than did his share by scoring the game's goal. "Anyway, that's why you pay the guy . . . big games, pressure situation. We had some lapses, but he came up big."
Dineen is not the most fluid skater ever to lace up his skates, but he does have a knack for scoring the big goal. He won Game 4 with a goal in a 2-1 overtime victory.
Tonight's heroics came at 7:30 of the second period on a play that began with Dave Babych dumping the puck into the corner of the Montreal zone. Roy, who is fairly agile and normally good with the puck, failed to stop it as it kicked around the boards.
Whalers left wing John Anderson met the puck along the left boards, and, without hesitating, centered a pass in front of the Montreal goal. Roy had just gotten back to the goal when Dineen redirected the pass over the shoulder of Roy, who went down expecting a low shot.
Evans smiled just bit when he was asked if the hustling Dineen ever tired.
"I never get tired watching him," said Evans.
The lead has been crucial in this series, as it is with most. The team that scored first won every game. But the Canadiens had plenty of opportunities.
"I can't put my finger on it," said Mats Naslund, the Canadiens' leading scorer during the playoffs. "We have to do the same things again and hope they go in. We gave ourselves four or five great chances and he came up with the save. We have to hope we get those in the next game and maybe two or three will go in."
With 11 seconds left in the second period, Liut made a great save to preserve the lead. Naslund had the puck above the left circle and fed Larry Robinson with a superb cross-ice pass. Liut shifted his weight, slid his left pad out and blocked the shot.
"The save on Robinson," said Evans, "was a game-saver."
"I thought we had him," Naslund said.
Liut shrugged off the play, and, though he said he was concerned how his knee would feel, insisted he was not tense about the game.
"We've lived with elimination since March," said Liut, who recorded his second career playoff shutout. "We had five games in March and had to win four and we had to beat Buffalo twice. Before the game tonight, there wasn't a lot of tension, because we've been living with it for so long."
There still will be a seventh game, and Liut wasn't getting carried away.
"Playing goal is an extremely humbling experience," he said. "You're the hero one night and the goat the next. And neither one is your fault. You don't win 1-0 by yourself."