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National Hockey League: Kings join the contenders

You will be excused, in these formative weeks of the long National Hockey League season, for getting the impression the standings are being drawn out of a helmet.

First Toronto shot unexpectedly to the top of its division, and now the once-lowly Los Angeles Kings are playing like heirs to a throne. The Kings, eliminated in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs last spring by the champion New York Islanders, won 11 of their first 15 games and recently beat the Islanders convincingly on Long Island.

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Are the Kings for real?

With Marcel Dionne and Charlie Simmer providing the principal firepower, they scored freely last year. Now they are deeper and sounder on defense.

Jerry Korab came from Buffalo and Dave Lewis from the Islanders late last season to add experienced muscle, and they have been joined impressively this year by first-round draft choice Larry Murphy.

Murphy represents a new determination by Los Angeles management to retain its top draft picks rather than trade them away for retread talent, and already the approach is proving successful. Another first-round choice, right wing Jim Fox, is also playing well.

"The only thing the Kings still lack is tough guy, which you need on the road ," says an opposing scout.

The Philadelphia Flyers have never lacked tough guys, and they are enjoying an 11-game unbeaten streak.

Last year they went a record 35 games without a loss and won the overall regular season championship -- but lost to the Islandes in the cup finals.

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Now the Flyers are quietly and quickly becoming a young team, letting veterans like Bob Kelly and Andre Dupont got to make room for up-and-coming prospects from their Maine farm club. Bobby Clarke goes on, an indomitable leader, but leading scorer Ken Linseman is out with a broken leg, and second-year man Brian Propp must pick up the slack.

The Islanders, meanwhile, are back to their old unpredictable tricks and struggling to play just a bit over .500 hockey. Do not be misled, however. This is a well-put-together machine that could develop into a dynasty.

The roster is intact from 1979-80 and the key players are the youngest of any contender's. Bryan Trottier, the league's best all-around center, is 24. Mike Bossy, the habitual 50-goal scorer, is 23. Dennis Potvin, leader of the defense , is only 27.

"We can duplicate our success of last season," says the resolute each, Al Arbour, "but we have to stay hungry and healthy. Right now our defense isn't clearing people out from in front of the net. We're playing like we expect people to move over because we won the Stanley Cup."

For the first time in five seasons the Montreal Canadiens failed to win that cup, and with Guy Lafleur sidelined this fall they lost their first two games for the first time since 1938-39. They struggled along under the .500 mark for the first month, but with the marvelous Lafleur back at the top of his game they are playing like champions once again.

Against the New York Rangers the other night, Guy broke open a close game with an incredible bit of body and puck control. Racing toward the net with a New York defenseman at his side, he screeched to an immediate stop and -- with the defenseman careening by -- wristled a 20-foot shot past the goalie. It was a play only Lafleur could have made.

Guy scored another big goal as the Canadiens blanked the Kings 3-0 in Montreal last weekend to reassert their credentials for those whose memories might be too short.

Because they were eliminated by Minnesota in the play-offs, it is too easy to forget that the Canadiens under replacement coach Claude Ruel were the best team in the league the second half of last season, piling up 65 points in 40 games. Larry Robinson remains the premier defenseman in the NHL and Bob Gainey one of the best forwards (the Russians consider him the NHL's finest player).

Says Gainey, "We have to avoid thinking we mustm regain the Stanley Cup this season. Our goal must be simply to improve, one step at a time, as a team. Otherwise we will put too much pressure on ourselves."

With Bunny Larocque and Denis Herron solid in goal, and Serge Savard and Guy Lapointe regaining their form in front of them, the only problem area is center, where potential superstar Pierre Mondou is out with an injury. No. 1 draft choice Doug Wickenheiser brings needed size, but is being broken in slowly, in the Canadien tradition.

Scotty Bowman, who coached Montreal to four straight Stanley Cups, moved to Buffalo last year and led the Sabres to second place in the overall standings. (Bowman since has given up coaching to concentrate on his general manager duties , with Roger Neilson taking over behind the bench.) The Sabres must be listed with any group of top contenders.

Goalies Don Edwards and Bob Sauve won the Vezina Trophy, helped by a strong defensive corps featuring Jim Schoenfeld, John Van Boxmeer, and Larry Hajt. Gil Perreault and Danny Gare are exciting skaters and scorers, and if Neilson and Bowman can successfully mix in a couple of new faces like 6 ft. 4 in. Steve Patrick, a right wing who was the No. 1 draft choice, the Sabres could win it all.

Boston and Minnesota, the only other teams given a believable chance of unseating the Islanders according to preseason forecasts, are off to opposite starts. The Bruins have struggled in the early stages, groping through a nine-game winless streak at one point and falling to the bottom of the Adams Division standings, while the North Stars have lived up to expectations with a fast getaway.

If the defense-minded Bruins lack anything under their new coach, Gerry Cheevers, the reformed goalie, it is speed up front. Cheevers, of course, faces an adjustment in teaching young players how to skate and score after years of working to keep the puck out of the net.

Defenseman Ray Bourque, rookie of the year last season, will be one of the best. Rogie Vachon from Detroit and Jim Craig from the US Olympic team via Atlanta are Cheevers's successors in goal on a team that seems to have broken out of its early doldrums with a win and a tie in its last two games, and that appears to have too much talent not to move up toward the top of its division as the season progresses.

The North Stars, blessed with young speed the Bruins would covet, must prove they can win on the road where the going gets more physical -- which is where we came in, talking about the soaring Los Angeles Kings. Time will tell, and in an eight-month season there is plenty of that.

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