Once-dominant Canadiens are again NHL's greatest show on ice

Out of the unexpected chaos that was the National Hockey League playoffs has come an old order. The lordly Montreal Canadiens are the Stanley Cup champions for the 23rd time, a record in team sports (the New York Yankees have won the World Series 22 times).The big ``C'' on the Canadien jersey could stand for ``continuity.'' Montreal won its first cup 70 years ago before the league was even formed. From 1956 through 1960, the Canadiens won it in an unmatched five straight times. They continued their domination with four more cups in the '60s and won six in the '70s, including four in a row from 1976 through 1979.

The New York Islanders broke that string in 1980 en route to their own four-year run, and Edmonton took over in '84 and '85. That made it six years without a cup for Montreal -- the longest such stretch since the 1940s and early '50s.

The Habs are back now, though -- and maybe to stay for a while. Given the current balance in the league, nobody is talking about a dynasty, but never has Montreal captured the cup with such a young, untried team. The roster lists eight rookies, not counting the coach.

One, the 20-year-old rookie goaltender Patrick Roy, became the youngest-ever MVP of the playoffs. Longtime fans can't resist the parallel this year and 1971, when Ken Dryden went in goal and led the Canadiens to the first of six Stanley Cups they won with him in the nets.

``This is the greatest feeling of my life, but we have to get ready for next year because it will get even tougher now that we're the champions,'' says Roy.

The great defenseman Larry Robinson predicts, ``Patrick should become one of the best. He concentrated much better in the playoffs. He was totally focused. He gained confidence with every game and found how effective he can be.''

Roy allowed fewer than two goals a game in the playoffs. He shut out Calgary 1-0 in the fourth game of the finals, then doused the Flames 4-3 in the fifth and last game. He trained on potato chips, seldom practiced, and stayed alert by chatting with the goalposts. Whatever works!

Protected by Montreal's adhesive defense, he was there when needed to make the demanding save. His friends call him Humpty Dumpty, but he never came apart under the intense pressure.

The man who put his faith in Roy and other rookies like Claude Lemieux (10 playoff goals, including four game-winners) is first-year coach Jean Perron. His job is probably the most difficult in coaching, since the Montreal press and fans will settle for nothing less than first place and express themselves in two languages.

Extra questions surrounded Perron, because he'd been a college coach and brought an understated studiousness to the challenge. (Calgary coach Bob Johnson also is a former college coach.)

``If I'd known last July that I would lose Pierre Mondou, Mario Tremblay, and Lucien DeBlois, there's no way I'd have taken the job,'' Perron says today. ``I decided to go with the youngsters, and we got off to a slow start, then had a bad streak in March that cost us our division title. In the end, patience paid off.''

Perron admits he made mistakes.

``Getting the job so late, I spent too much time trying to learn everything about the league and not enough time around our players. This summer I'll have the chance to study tapes of this season's games and make more assessments in advance.''

Perron, who never played in the NHL, gives much of the credit to devoted veterans Bob Gainey and Larry Robinson. They played on the last cup champion in 1979, and led this callow team.

``They pulled us together and set the example,'' says Perron. ``What we are revolves around them -- what they've been, what they mean to us this year.''

Robinson is enjoying his sixth Stanley Cup, Gainey his fifth.

``This may be my last year,'' Robinson says. ``And it's the only way to go out. The week's rest we got before the final round helped Bob and me. Calgary played 22 playoff games and had to be tired.''

Says Gainey, the captain who carried the cup on the ceremonial victory lap, ``I always thought we'd come back someday. I wanted to do it this year because you never know when you'll get another chance.''

It all seems so ordered and unchaotic with the cup back in Montreal.

Due to the holiday plus coverage of the NBA and NHL playoffs, the Red Barber column that normally runs on the last Wednesday of each month will appear June 4.

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