Sing no sad songs for the St. Louis Blues. To the utter surprise of almost everyone, they lead the National Hockey League, with less than a month left in the regular season.
The most conspicuous reason is the goaltending of Mike Liut (pronounced Leeute), an outgoing 25-year-old who was named Most Valuable Player in the recent All-Star Game and is a prime candidate for regular season MVP honors as well. He is the team's workaholic wellspring of confidence and its theatrical last line of defense.
Liut will not be found at the top of the statistics for goals against or shutouts, but he comes up with the difficult saves against the good teams, he plays nearly every night, and he keeps the young Blues in big games until they can find their footing.
"Goals aren't important," he says emphatically. "Wins are. I'd rather win two 4-2 games than get a shutout one night and get beaten badly the next. I want the guys to look at me and see that I'm working hard, especailly early in the game on the road, because they'll hang in there then."
Liut in this respect is reminiscent of Gerry Cheevers, the great Boston goaltender now coaching the Bruins. Barely impressive statistically, Cheevers was a respected "money player" -- especially in the playoffs.
But Liut is being compared more to former Montreal star Ken Dryden than to Cheevers. Like Dryden he is a tall (6ft., 2 in.), articulate college graduate with a standup playing style.
The comparison is valid, and in his favor Liut is probably quicker than Dryden. He makes marvelous lateral moves, often stopping a shot at the left corner of his cage and flashing across to turn away the rebound at the other corner. He might follow these heroics by signaling no goal for fun.
If you have seen those toy games for youngsters in which the goalie is propelled wildly from side to side on a hand-held rod, you have an idea of Liut's maneuverability.
"He's tremendously agile for a big man," says Emile Francis, the former goaltender who has put together this St. Louis powerhouse as its president and general manager. "Also he anticipates very well. It's a wonderful natural style, and I'd never tamper with it. Besides, it isn't how you look, it's how many you stop."
Francis first was attracted to Liut's promise when the young Ontario native played for Bowling Green University against St. Louis University. The Blues drafted him in 1976, but were having trouble paying their bills and couldn't afford to sign him.
He went to Cincinnati in the now defunct World Hockey Association, playing two years in virtual anonymity but constantly tracked by Francis, who is not nicknamed "The Cat" for nothing. Finally, the St. Louis-based Ralston-Rurina Company came to the Blues' fiscal rescue, and Francis nabbed his man.
Liut counts his college-WHA development a blessing.
"It gave me time to mature," he says looking rather like television's popular Fonzie with dark, wavy hair topping off his angular, good-natured face. Between sentences that Fonzie wouldn't be able to construct so nimbly, he gum-chews with obvious vigor. "I came to the NHL older and better prepared. I'm still learning -- how not to fall, how to get up faster if you do -- but the adjustment wasn't as tough as it would have been.
"I'm very high on the college experience. If I have kids who want to play hockery, I'll definitely encourage them to play college hockey and get an education. Playing junior hockey would have been a disaster for me. I got help with my hockey in college and more important, I got help in understanding what playing a game should be all about, and the importance of having strong character.
"I took pre-law courses and have my degree in business, and I'll be able to take advantage of that in the future. I'm not sure how I want to use it, but I have plenty of time to decide."
Liut plays down the possibility he will go on to a legal career, explaining that his studies so far were general and introductory, but he sounds as though he is considering it. Dryden, of course, went on to become a lawyer after his goaltending career ended.
Unlike most hockey players, Liut spends much of his time off the ice reading -- everything from light mysteries to philosophy and political biographies. At present he packs with him on trips "Vat 21," the story of an American pilot who was shot down in Vietnam, was captured, and escaped.
Does Liut compile a book on opposing shooters in the NHL?
"Just a vague one. When there were six teams in the league, you could have kept track. Today there are too many teams, and the shooters are more versatile. I'd rather react to situations than shooters."
He is reacting well enough that his happy first-place team is being called the St. Liut Blues, and justifiably so.