Things in our fragile sporting world can flip-flop willy-nilly in April, which, as we are again reminded painfully, oft tends to be the cruelest of the months. What a difference a fortnight makes.
Seems like only yesterday that hockey pundits were waxing admiringly over the soaring prospects of the Bruins, though it was a bit odd, given their topsy-turvy regular season. Meanwhile, over in hoops world, the Celtics were eclipsing the Cavaliers in the standings, allowing their aroused supplicants to entertain wild and crazy possibilities.
Fast rising was the hope that the New Garden would again hum with double-barreled blades and boards, high drama, the very length of spring, just like at the Old Garden in the good old days, the ultimate example, in my book, being in the pristine spring of 1974, cresting on Mother’s Day the 10th of May, when Tommy Heinsohn’s revived Celtics confronted Kareem Jabbar’s mighty Milwaukee Bucks in Game Seven of the NBA Finals while the Bruins, in what would prove to be the Orr-Esposito’s firewagon’s last hurrah, were tangling with Bobby Clarke’s upstart Flyers in Game Six of the NHL Finals.
Boston remains the only town ever to have savored such a moment: both the resident hockey and basketball clubs teetering at the very brink on the same magnificent afternoon.
The result still rankles 43 years later. If you’re not old enough to recall, I’ll note that it was the Celts who won the laurels, with John Havlicek and Dave Cowens at their very best, while the Big Bad Bruins had to sip from one of their more bitter cups, as Bobby Orr got unjustly banished to the penalty box in the final moments of a one-goal loss that cost them another Stanley Cup. That close, it came, to being truly epic! Nonetheless, such great days they were.
Mind you, none but the utterly addled of the adoring diehards expected anything like that this spring. But a longer run, at least into May, might have been possible. Under better circumstances, the Bruins beating Ottawa would have been perfectly reasonable. They’re equals. On the other hand, that these new and still mercurial Bruins have failed us once again should surprise no one.
Are the Celtics soon to follow? After a sloppy start, they seem to have gained control of their opening-round series with the Chicago Bulls, although losing two at home to a team that sneaked into the playoff at the last second of the regular season hardly reeks of promise. Doubtless, the wrenching personal burdens of mainstay Isaiah Thomas shook the entire Celtic team. Balancing that off, however, has been the Bulls losing their red-hot point-guard, Rajon Rondo, who’d been on a maniacal mission to destroy his old team out of sheer vengeance until he broke his thumb.
The Celtics have been lucky. Sympathetic Hoop Gods have intervened in their behalf. On the other hand, those defending champ Cavs raised little sweat in casually sweeping a better-than- the-Bulls Indiana team four straight. Ho hum! Make of that what you will.
True, the Bruins got no breaks. But if no luck came their way, this has not been a team gifted at making its own luck for quite a spell now. It’s hard to figure how much their awkwardly brief playoff dalliance advances their much-touted rebuilding. They should get credit for being feisty, for going down hard. But what in the end is that worth?
With four of their defensemen down for the count, their brittle No. 2 center injured yet again, other players nicked, bruised, and over-worked, with too much depending on four kids who had a grand total of a couple dozen games in the big leagues, they still came within a whisker (and three overtimes) of beating Ottawa. A small break here or there – especially from the referees – and they could have pulled it off. Although, I might further suggest, then what?
Weeping and whining about the officials is bush league. But it can be plausibly argued the horrible call awarding the Senators a game-winning power play in Game Three may have decided this series. But good teams make their own luck. Nor do they beat themselves.
In the decisive moment of the sixth and last game, David Pastrnak, the brilliant 20-year-old Czech winger, committed a brutally mindless penalty, tackling an Ottawa opponent and hauling the chap down by the neck. Sure enough, the Senators promptly struck, ending the Bruins’ season. It was as dumb a penalty as you’ll ever see in these playoffs, and it came from their brightest young star.
The emerging Bruins have promise. But much refinement is needed. Is Bruce Cassidy, impressive in his first ten weeks behind the bench, up to that task? That’s just first and foremost of the huge decisions to be addressed in an off season that will make or break GM Don Sweeney.
He has lots of time. It’s only April.