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.