Posted by: Mike Cornelius | June 13, 2019

For Boston, A Very Rude Awakening

A NOTE TO READERS: The next post will be on Monday, one day later than usual, in order to report on the Sunday night finish, east coast time, of the men’s U.S. Open golf tournament, now underway at Pebble Beach Golf Links in California. Thanks for reading!

Call it the surfeit from conceit. This week saw a massive overabundance of expectation among fans in greater Boston who believed that the actual playing of Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Finals was a mere formality. The rank hubris that produced such a misbegotten attitude was produced by the remarkable run of championships in multiple sports by the city’s four major franchises. After six Super Bowl wins, four World Series titles, and individual NBA and NHL championships since 2002, Wednesday night’s game could have only one possible outcome. That the first of the Patriots championships and two of the Red Sox titles came at the expense of teams from St. Louis was further proof of the inevitable. Dan Shaughnessy, the Boston Globe columnist who has been taking the temperature of area sports fans for many years, read the prevailing attitude just right when he wrote “No one around here was ready for this. A Boston team losing a championship game? Impossible.”

Such a result was of course anything but impossible, as demonstrated by plenty of evidence in the first six games of the NHL’s championship series. The Bruins entered the Finals as the favorite, in part because the very presence of the St. Louis Blues seemed so unlikely. In the first week of January the Blues were in dead last place in the entire league, with the fewest points of any team in either conference, and not surprisingly, a negative goal differential.  A new coach, a decision to give a rookie goaltender a shot between the pipes on a regular basis, and some timely moves at the trade deadline changed all that. From that nadir in deep winter, St. Louis went 30-10-5 over its last forty-five games, with a plus-45 difference in goals scored versus allowed. During the same period, Boston was similar but no better, with a record of 27-10-5 and a plus-35 differential in scoring.

If those numbers from the season’s second half weren’t enough to give New England fans pause, the first six games of the Finals should have been. Despite a significant advantage in goals scored, the Bruins had been unable to put the Blues away. Instead, not only was the series tied at three games apiece, it was St. Louis that had first crack at seizing the Cup, skating on home ice last Sunday with a three games to two lead. Boston, which alternated between looking very, very good and appearing to be asleep throughout the series, responded by playing perhaps its most dominant and complete game of the Finals, winning 5-1 and setting up Game 7 on home ice at TD Garden.

But this series was not one that proved the value of playing in front of a supportive crowd. Through those first six contests both squads went just 1-2 on their home ice. Perhaps that too should have sent a shiver down the spines of the Bruins faithful, who instead made their way past the Bobby Orr statue outside the Garden, certain that they would be celebrating a title in a few hours, with some no doubt planning to keep right on partying until the traditional duck boat parade on Friday.

That statue of Orr recalls one of the most iconic photographs in all of sports. It was taken almost half a century ago, on the night of May 10, 1970. Game 4 of that year’s Stanly Cup Finals, also between Boston and St. Louis, was in overtime when Orr took a pass from teammate Derek Sanderson and buried the puck in the St. Louis net. Even as he took the shot Orr was tripped by Noel Picard of the Blues, and the famous photo, like the statue, shows Boston’s hero flying through the air like a hockey superman, his stick raised high in triumph.

Plenty of Boston fans recalled the night Bobby Orr flew when they learned that St. Louis would be the Bruins opponent in the Finals. But 1970 was the third year of the NHL’s expansion era, when all six new teams were grouped together in the West Division while the Original Six franchises comprised the East. The Blues went to the Finals three years in a row as the best of the expansion squads, and not surprisingly were swept each time, the last of their twelve straight Finals defeats coming on Orr’s goal. All these years later this was a very different St. Louis team, one that specialized in smash mouth hockey, a tough and aggressive style of play that was in sharp contrast to Boston’s defensive skills and effective power play.

Throughout the series the Blues aggressiveness appeared to wear down the Bruins from time to time. Especially in Games 2 and 5, the Boston lineup was listless for long stretches, with top line forwards Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand notably ineffective. All season long Bruins fans knew they could count on those two along with linemate David Pastrnak to lead the team’s offense. Instead, by the time the final horn sounded and a jubilant St. Louis squad got ready to hoist the Cup, Bergeron and Marchand had combined for zero five-on-five goals in the series, with Pastrnak netting just one.

It would be unfair however to blame the Bruins dismal performance in Game 7 on any one or two players. If Game 6 in St. Louis was Boston’s most complete effort, Wednesday night was its mirror image. With everything on the line, the Bruins carried the action for much of the first period but were unable to put the puck past Blues goalie Jordan Binnington. Then late in the period a couple of Boston breakdowns gave St. Louis openings that resulted in a pair of goals, and Bruins shoulders slumped. While forty minutes of game time remained, the battle for the Stanley Cup was effectively over.

After the 4-1 thrashing, as chastened Bruins fans quietly made their way out of the Garden, and as their neighbors across the region turned off their television sets, one couldn’t help but think back to the playoffs one year after Orr’s famous goal. In 1971, in the first round, the top-ranked Bruins faced off against Montreal. The Canadiens relied on a 23-year-old rookie goaltender named Ken Dryden. He proved to be magnificent in the net, presaging his Hall of Fame career, and the defending Stanley Cup champions were sent packing in seven games. Nearly half a century later, the 25-year-old rookie Binnington reprised Dryden’s role, this time in the Finals. As he did so in Game 7, allowing his teammates time to score and score and score and score, the Bruins and their fans learned the hard but eternal lesson that victory is never a given.

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