Orr and Esposito-led Bruins the most underachieving great team in NHL history

0:58 | NHL
NHL's Most Iconic Moments, No. 1: Bobby Orr Takes Flight
Saturday May 27th, 2017

There’s a wonderful moment in Peter Yates’s 1973 crime thriller picture, The Friends of Eddie Coyle, when the titular character, played by Robert Mitchum, is taken for a night out to the Boston Garden to watch the Bobby Orr/Phil Esposito-led Bruins play the Chicago Blackhawks.

This is supposed to represent a final instance of pure, unadulterated joy in a life that hasn’t known a lot of that, before a hit goes down. Fear not, won’t spoil it for you. Coyle is loaded on cheep Garden beer, but he can’t stop marveling at Bobby Orr, a “kid” with his entire future in front of him. This, friends, is Boston’s version of Eden, the Gallery Gods edition.

If you grow up in Boston any time after Orr laced them up for the B’s and your dad was around when he was playing, you’re told early on that Orr was better than that guy named "Gretzky" up in Edmonton, that he led the mighty Big Bad Bruins, a team that you’d think could never have lost anything.

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It was easy to conclude that they were tougher than everyone, with their scoring coming mostly from two guys in Orr and Espo. In the 1980s there were still bumper stickers kicking around with the line “Jesus saves, and Espo Scores on the Rebound” on them.

We like when our sports teams have personalities in which all of the individuals who comprise the roster fold into a kind of glorious Oneness, in which myriad distinctions give power to an overall subsuming whole.

With the Orr/Espo Bruins, there was a large helping of fun, like these were Marvel comic book characters, hockey players in name and rank only, but super heroes of a stripe, as well. You played street hockey, and even if you had never seen Orr skate in anything but an old timer’s game, you pretended you were him.

What you didn’t do—and what you still don’t do—if you were from these parts is argue that no team in league history achieved less than they should have than those Bruins. I’ve wrestled with that idea my entire life, much like a thinking hockey person’s version of Jacob tussling with the angel, and I can’t get away from it: those Bruins, those Bruins I was ingrained to love, were nowhere near as great as they should have been.

It’s easy with the whole “Big Bad” bit to think of the B’s as brawlers, albeit with skill. The Garden was smaller than other rinks, teams hated to play in it, with defensemen getting bounced off the boards on forecheck after forecheck, as someone like Wayne Cashman dug the puck out of the corner and hit Espo in the slot for, say, goal number 70 on the season.

That’s what we have to keep in mind: those Bruins were the Edmonton Oilers of their day, from a scoring standpoint, with Orr or Espo generally leading the league in points, as the other finished second. Johnny Bucyk was another elite scorer, who came to master the art of potting goals late in his career—which would have been in the early 1970s—but the top ten scoring list every year would be dotted with Bruins.

They had, you could argue, more scoring depth than even the high-flying, slice ‘em and dice ‘em up 1980s Oilers. With, oh yeah, a better version of Coffey from an offensive defenseman’s standpoint, in a guy who also happened to be one of the most elite defensive defenseman, too.

Talk about having the defensive end covered, in a way that a team like the Oilers did not. Then throw in a Hall of Fame goalie in Gerry Cheevers. So how on earth did this team only win two Stanley Cups?

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It’s worse that this was the age of the dynasty. Teams won Cups in clumps. Consider the Flyers at the time: they ought not to have been remotely on the level of these Bruins, but they won two Cups in a row—beating the B’s for the first one—and went to a third consecutive, before the Canadiens rubbed them out, as they were starting their own multi-year run.

What teams should have had more Cups? The early 90s Penguins? They would have, were it not for a pesky Islanders team in 1993. But they were a hodgepodge of a team, with Jagr not near his prime yet, Lemieux in and out of the lineup and veterans like Ron Francis and Paul Coffey—for one year, at least—having entered into the second acts of their careers. They were close to prime, but not in their dead center, sweet spot prime. Maybe the late 1980s Calgary Flames should have had more? But that’s a quibble, more like a regret than a condemnation.

The Bruins won in 1969-70, the year Orr broke out and won every award. They were better the next year, going 57-14-7. They scored 399 goals and allowed 207. Ready for the silliest stat ever that happens to be true? Orr was +124.

Doesn’t that make you want to sit down and ponder how that is possible? How many goals against could he even have been on the ice for? Seven? Ten? In what universe does this go down? I’ll you what universe: one in which a solid but not great Canadiens team upsets a team like this in seven games, with Ken Dryden—who would win the Calder the next season—having perhaps the best series of goaltending any keeper ever has.

Still, that’s no excuse. Hot goalies are hot goalies are hot goalies, and Dryden’s flame was sufficiently hot as to be blue, but a team that stacked, that primed for history, to possibly call itself the best single season team ever, has to find a way, doesn’t it?

We’ve hit the forty-fifth anniversary of the 1972 Cup-winning Bruins team, which was a squad more consistently excellent than the one of two seasons prior. It’s the lone Bruins team that you can enter into a discussion of best campaigns in league history. They beat the Rangers, who were awfully good during these years, but not at the level of the upper classmen of the league, so to speak, with the Rangers then relishing in knocking out the Bruins the next year.

In 1973-74 the Bruins had that loss to the Flyers. One more insanely astronomical scoring season remained for Orr and Espo before knee injuries caused the second-finest hockey player we’ve ever seen to become just a mortal hockey player (but with more surgeries) and Big Phil was shipped to the Rangers.

What’s also telling is that stripped of these two singular stars—and let’s be upfront: Esposito is a lot closer to the all-time NHL top ten than we usually think—the Bruins, with their Lunch Pail A.C. gang—that is to say, a bunch of dudes who would out-work rather than out-talent you—went to two Cup Finals in the next several years, and would have had a third, were it not for a notorious too-many-men-on-the-ice call.

So that’s basically a wash, in terms of Cup finals appearances, between galvanic, mighty squad, and “we bust our asses because we don’t have tons of skill” squad. Those early 1970s Bruins were the ultimate rock stars of Boston. As I’ve heard some old-time bar owners attest, they could drink their faces off. Derek Sanderson was to the NHL what Joe Namath was to the NFL. And the Bruins had been so bad for so long. So boring. Such also-rans. People wanted a winner. People wanted to help winners have a whale of a night out. Nights upon nights.

It’s hard to imagine this now, but we’re talking about a time when the B’s were easily the biggest thing in town. The Patriots meant little to anyone, the Celtics had made winning rote, and the there wasn’t a Red Sox Nation yet. Baseball was pastoral, pastime-y. But the 1970s were about grit and excess, better when they meshed, and with the Bruins, they meshed to the hilt.

The Orr/Espo Bruins were, to nick a line form KISS, the hottest rock and roll band in the land, the absolute lords of the manor from Dorchester to Dedham to Dennis out on the Cape. You see, we have to pick D-towns, given the D-man at the heart of that team. It’s just how you become here. But a little less flagon-hoisting and a little more Cup-lifting would have gone a long way in sparing Bostonians of something they don’t want to face about a team and what ought to have been: and that, simply, is that what was, wasn’t enough. 

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