People say, when reveling in the extraordinary excitement of Stanley Cup hockey, “How come the games aren’t like this all season?”
The answer is simple. If the players did try to perform at such a furious pace from October to June they’d be dead and gone by the time the bloody playoffs arrive.
In all the games, levels of commitment, dedication, and intensity take the proverbial quantum leap when regular seasons end and post-season tourneys matching the best against the best get underway. If combatants weren’t capable of such a surge of effort, they wouldn’t be there. And if they fail to respond to the demand, however brutal, they don’t last.
But if all the games are thus affected, none is more so than hockey. If in the current and on-going passion plays featuring the revived again Bruins they seem to be skating faster, hitting harder, focusing more sharply, caring more deeply, and bringing more nastiness to every vague utterance it’s because all of that is absolutely true.
Such bursts of greater and fiercer energy spring from the game’s very molecular makeup. For it’s the one — and I think only — game where sheer desire can truly compensate for shortages in size, strength, even skill.
In all the major team-games, players insist with varying degrees of piety that the precious quality called ‘attitude’ — pure will, if you will — can be the deciding factor. But only in hockey do they really believe it. ‘Guts’ is a huge factor in all games but more so in hockey than in all the others.
And so we have something special tentatively building again in Boston, where the Bruins again are the pets, much as they were two merry springs ago. Increasingly, their games are frantic; being played not so much brilliantly as desperately, which is even more fun.
It’s amazing. Less than a month ago the Bruins were a pack of slogging, ham-handed oafs going nowhere after losing seven of their last 10 regular season tilts. Now, suddenly, they’re the people’s choice much in command after two highly impressive wins over the New York Rangers and seeking (as this is written) to deliver the haymaker down in Manhattan.
Would it be impertinent to point out that the thing can flip-flop again on as little as a referee’s whim or an unlucky bounce in over-time or that ultimate wild-card, injury? Why, not at all old Sport. But then you don’t want to hear that.
In their first win over the Rangers— agonizingly decided by a perfectly executed Bergeron to Marchand rink-length dash about 16 minutes into overtime — the crowd at the new Garden stood for the last period and a half, swaying and baying with every drive up and down the ice, and the NBC play-by-play man, a veteran of the business, commented about how remarkable he found the scene. Nobody sat down for what seemed the better part of an hour. Hockey —again uniquely among the games — has a talent for drawing its small but ferocious fan base into the act. But rarely are such devotions more intense than in this town as was memorably verified just two years ago.
This year — again uniquely, alas — all of this has been bonded with tragedy. For increasingly, in the somewhat simplistic public mind, the road to healing, even redemption after the horrific Marathon madness somehow leads through our professional sporting playgrounds. The Celtics are finished. The Patriots don’t start until August. And the Red Sox won’t crest until September. That leaves the Bruins.
Identifying a hockey team’s struggle to win a championship with the historical grievances of an entire nation seems a bit of a stretch to this perhaps unlearned observer. It’s risky to mix your metaphors. Still more to the point, do the Bruins need —let alone deserve — this added burden? Probably not!
Ducking it now, however, may not be possible. And if the Bruins continue to advance, this curious sensation can only grow. Evidence of which was the reaction to the alleged ‘miracle’ that rescued the Bruins in the opening round against the luckless Maple Leafs.
While the epic ending was unquestionably a magnificent moment, the unenlightened might have seen it more an inexplicable meltdown by the Leafs than divinely inspired balm for our battered spirits. But that’s not the spin most prefer. As one of our leading columnists was quick to declare with specific reference to the Marathon angle, “Thanks, Bruins! We needed that.”
Even without such elevated stakes a showdown with the Rangers is always a pleasure. Along with Toronto’s Leafs and Montreal’s Habs, the Broadway Blueshirts are our truly original hockey brethren.
Recall that there’s actually no such thing as an ‘Original Six’, the term consistently misused when referencing the NHL’s storied past. If you want to talk about origins, the NHL consisted of just four teams —all from Canada —when formed in the WWI era. It expanded to ten when the Americans got into the act in the 1920’s, retrenched to eight throughout the 1930’s, before finally settling in the now fabled six-team format in 1942. That’s how it stayed —and there are romantics out there who believe it’s the way it should still be — until runaway expansion took off in 1967.
If it would be, of course, ludicrous to now have only six teams it’s near equally so to have 30. But we’ll have to beat up on that dead horse another day. The issue of the moment is the Rangers, and only the Rangers. I would stress —again — that as this is written the Bruins are up by two games and seemingly dominate but if that tide were utterly reversed by the time you get to read this no one should be surprised.
It’s the Bruins custom, tried and true, to make life as difficult as possible for themselves. But if they again have trouble closing the deal and dilly-dally against the Rangers as they did with the Leafs they’ll surely regret it. Down three goals with 10 minutes left in Game Seven facing Henrik Lundqvist would prove rather different than dealing with eager young but untested James Reimer even if New York’s nimble Swede is —as some are beginning to suspect —not quite the goalie he once was.
Against the Rangers, the Bruins have much history on their side. It was the Rangers they whipped in the 1929 finals for their first Cup with Tiny Thompson holding New York to a single goal and Dit Clapper getting Boston’s key scores. The ultimate Ranger series was in 1939, an electrifying seven-game classic featuring three over-time victories all decided on goals by Mel Hill. How wondrous was that? In his best Bruins’ season ‘Sudden Death’ Mel had only 10 goals.
But for me, nothing could top 1972 for I had the pleasure of being aboard for the entire rollicking ride as ‘the Big Bad Bruins’ reached their personal mountain-top before crashing quite spectacularly. What a grand bunch they were! Bobby Orr was at his magnificent best although crucial contributions also came from Wayne Cashman and the delightful Ace Bailey, hero of ‘Nine/Eleven’. Equally admirable for the Blueshirts was Brad Park, heroic in defeat. It was just a great series.
Only weeks later came the raids, first of expansion and then of the World Hockey Association, that short-circuited an era that should have been longer and stronger. It would not be the same for the Bruins for a long, long time.
It is echoes of all that the 2013 Bruins are seeking to raise. Another Cup now would invite comparisons to the most illustrious of their forebears. But there’s a long road ahead and first they must get by the Rangers, no given yet. In Stanley Cup theatre, there are never any ‘givens’.