The snow tires have come off the car, the crocuses are in bloom, and a hint of warmth in the spring air turns a sports fan's thoughts to . . . hockey? The National Hockey League hopes so. In 16 cities across North America, from Atlanta to Montreal in the Eastern half to Vancouver and Los Angeles in the West , the "real" NHL season has begun.
Left behind with the ice and snow of the winter are five unfortunate teams whose only fault was failing to win quite often enough. So with the 80-game "exhibition" over and the pairings set, the Stanley Cup contenders start their dos-a-dos.
If you want to know the likely cup winner, just keep an eye on the members of the 100-Point Club: Philadelphia, Buffalo, Montreal, and Boston. These four teams all passed the century mark during the regular season (two points for a win, one for a tie) and showed why they are the legitimate contenders: (1) They almost always win at home, and (2) they win a respectable number of games on foreign ice.
The Philadelphia Flyers, who finished with the best regular-season record, were probably the biggest surprise in the NHL. In midseason they put together a memorable streak -- 35 games without a loss.
Under Coach Pat Quinn, veterans Bobby Clarke and Reggie Leach combined quickly with such newcomers as Pete Peeters, the sensational goalie. The only cloud on the horizon was a late-season losing streak that set fidgety Flyers fans wondering if the team had peaked too early.
In Buffalo, the Sabres have the ingredient that often proves so important in playoff hockey: strong goaltending. Netminders Bob Suave and Don Edwards will win the Vezina Trophy for the lowest goals-against average in the NHL. Coach and General Manager Scotty Bowman could make hockey history by winning two consecutive Stanley Cups with different teams: He led the Montreal Canadiens to the championship last season.
Speaking of the Canadiens, they seem to be peaking at the right moment. Early in the year the club had its troubles under coach Bernie Geoffrion. Now Claude Ruel, Geoffrion's replacement, has them back to their customary winning ways, although the pressures of being in hockey's toughest job have caused him to announce he won't return next year. High-scoring Guy Lafleur and Pierre Larouche have led the attack, and newly acquired Denis Herron has proved effective in goal.
This was supposed to be a year of collapse for the Boston Bruins. Instead, they have a legitimate shot at the cup. Under the firm hand of General Manager Harry Sinden, who returned behind the bench after a 10-year hiatus late in the season, the club went 6-1. Experienced players like Jean Ratelle, Brad Park, Wayne Cashman, and Terry O'Reilly know how to take advantage of the league's weaker teams. But whether they can overpower any of the other 100-Point Club members remains to be seen. The loss of Gilles Gilbert, the injured goalie, will hurt.
Everyone likes to root for an underdog, and below this hockey Fearsome Foursome lie several teams likely to make a strong impression in the playoffs.
Minnesota's North Stars have parlayed careful draft choices into a powerful, high-scoring team. But the club does have an Achilles' heel: a poor road record.
Between the Islanders and the Rangers, New york-area fans have a good chance of following one of their clubs to the finals. The Islanders are a team that has done well during the regular season the past two years, only to fall to "lesser" teams in the playoffs. Mike Bossy is a 50-goal scorer, and the acquisition of Butch Goring from Los Angeles added even more firepower. The club closed the season with a 12-game unbeaten streak (8-0-4).
Goalie John Davidson helped carry the upstart Rangers to the finals last year , and talk around the league is that after a so-so season he is in top form again. Opposing teams fear that Coach Fred Shero, with a reputation for innovation and mystery, was just "tinkering" during the regular season to give new players experience and piece together the right combinations on the ice for the playoffs.
Three other teams bear watching, too -- but not because they are threats to win it all.
The Los Angeles Kings have an exciting line in Marcel Dionne, Charlie Simmer, and Dave Taylor, who combined for nearly 150 goals.
The Hartrford Whalers, one of two former World Hockey Association teams to qualify for the playoffs, offer an opportunity to watch two of the finest players ever to play in the NHL -- Gordie Howe and Bobby Hull.
The Edmonton Oilers showcase a sensational young player in Wayne Gretzky. He tied Marcel Dionne for top scoring honors with 137 points, losing the title because of a lower goal total. Playoff pairings (Best three-of-five) Boston vs. Pittsburgh Phildelphia vs. Edmonton Hartford vs. Montreal Buffalo vs. Vancouver N.Y. Islanders vs. Los Angeles Toronto vs. Minnesota Atlanta vs. N.Y. Rangers St. Louis vs. Chicago