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Montreal's defending hockey champions may surprise again

Nobody expected the Montreal Canadiens to win the Stanley Cup last spring -- and nobody expects them to repeat this season. Hockey is a bilingual sport, and the Canadiens are being summarily dismissed in both English and French. They only won, it is said, because Edmonton and the three other National Hockey League division champions managed to get themselves eliminated in the early playoff going. How nice that the regal Canadiens became the winningest franchise in sports, with 23 Stanley Cups, but now Edmonton's budding dynasty can resume.

Before we write off Montreal's chances too abruptly, though, let's consider the team's strong points:

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Last year's squad was the youngest in the NHL, with eight rookies plus a first-year coach, Jean Perron. This year's lineup is set and more experienced.

Goaltender Patrick Roy, one of those rookies, was the youngest Most Valuable Player in playoff history at 20, his goals-against average in postseason games a negligible 1.92. Roy, whose head has not been turned by his stunning success, is no flash in the net; he could become another Ken Dryden for the Canadiens.

Montreal is deep at every position. While defense is the dominant asset, youngsters like Claude Lemieux and Stephane Richer recall the Flying Frenchmen of old.

Dedicated veterans Bob Gainey and Larry Robinson give a young team great leadership. They know the challenges of defending the cup, and have done it before.

``Montreal's victory was no fluke,'' says Wayne (the Record Book) Gretzky of Edmonton. ``The Canadiens played inspired hockey. They didn't steal the cup -- they deserved it.''

It didn't hurt, of course, that Gretzky & Co. were upset in the playoffs by a hulking Calgary club that grew tired of playing in their shadow -- perhaps the jolt the Oilers needed after winning two cups in a row.

``We have only ourselves to blame,'' snaps Edmonton coach Glen Sather. ``We drifted into loose habits during the regular season and couldn't shake them in the playoffs. We figured our offense could pull out any game no matter how many goals we were giving up. We have to play stronger team hockey.''

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The Oilers appear to be listening, too; they've jumped out to an early lead in the Smythe Division in the first three weeks of the new season.

The offense seems powered by nuclear energy. For five years in succession the Oilers have scored more than 400 goals, an unprecedented run.

Gretzky is an offense unto himself. Last season he amassed more assists -- 163 -- than any other player ever scored points in one year. And he scored 52 goals, too. To say he is the surpassing team athlete of his time is to say that icebergs have tips.

Jari Kurri scored a league-leading 68 goals playing on Gretzky's wing, but may move to another line on occasion. Calgary came between the two in the playoffs, and Kurri struggled. ``We became too predictable,'' says Sather.

The Flames, despite a slow start, should keep improving, but will have trouble surprising Edmonton again. The offense perked up with the late-season addition of John Tonelli and Joey Mullen, and Bobby Hull's son, Brett, may help. The defense needs continued development by Rookie of the Year Gary Suter.

Goalie Mike Vernon, almost invulnerable in the playoffs, is still classified as a rookie. Other rookies who could become instant staples of their teams include Czech defectors Frantisek Musil, a Minnesota defenseman, and Michal Pivonka, a Washington center.

Philadelphia is favored to win the formidable Patrick Division over Washington, the three New York City area teams (Rangers, Islanders, and New Jersey Devils), and Pittsburgh. Tim Kerr (58 goals) leads the Flyer offense, Mark Howe the defense.

The Rangers and Islanders are in transition stages.

Phil Esposito is the new general manager of the Rangers, who upset the Flyers and Capitals in the playoffs, and he has shown an enthusiasm for making deals. What the Rangers really need is some of the scoring prowess Esposito showed when he wore Boston and New York uniforms, plus more muscle on defense. John Vanbiesbrouck is the Vezina Trophy winner in goal.

The Islanders have a new coach in Terry Simpson now that Al Arbour has moved upstairs. Simpson must meld old-timers like Mike Bossy (nine straight 50-goal seasons) and Denis Potvin (holder of all the major scoring records for defensemen) with young talent like Pat LaFontaine and Pat Flatley.

The Capitals never quite fulfill their contender's billing. Rod Langway and Scott Stevens are monumental on defense, but Bobby Carpenter, for one, must produce more on offense.

Pittsburgh has been a big surprise so far, going 8-3 to battle the Flyers for the best record in the entire league over the first three weeks. The Penguins can be a bit porous on defense, but on offense present the massive and marvelous Mario Lemieux, the most exciting young forward since Gretzky. He got off to a torrid scoring start, too, with 15 goals in his first 11 games.

Chicago and Minnesota are expected to be close in the weak Norris Division.

The best division race should be the Adams, in which Montreal last year finished just behind Quebec and just ahead of Boston, Hartford, and Buffalo. The division is known for tight-checking hockey the way it used to be throughout the league before expansion, Swedish imports, and the Gretzky influence.

The Nordiques lack only a cohesive spirit. Hartford, which improved greatly last season, has to avoid an annual February losing streak. Boston wants to take more offensive momentum into the playoffs, where it has scored just eight goals in eight games the past two years. Tom Gradin, over from Vancouver, will help at center. But there's also the all-important matter of goaltending.

Boston has no Patrick Roy backstopping everything. But then, neither does anyone else -- except the too-easy-to-overlook Montreal Canadiens.

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