Oh, what a week it was in Boston. First came the greedy old Celtics, letting the air out of New York's basketball. Then in trooped the hungry young Bruins, down two games in their Stanley Cup firefight with the Montreal Canadiens, the grands seigneurs of hockey, but still behaving with the crunching insolence that has endeared them to the city. The Bruins down? To the sweet thunder of Montreal bodies thudding into the Garden's boards, they creamed the Canadiens 5-0 on Thursday night and then on Sunday, in a game of high excitement, kicked the Montreal mystique in the seat of the pants and emerged with a 3-2 victory.
Brash of word as well as stick and elbow, some of the Bruins hinted that Tuesday's fifth game in Montreal and Thursday's sixth, back in Boston, would be all that they would need to clinch the East title. "Get your tickets for Thursday night," said 22-year-old Derek (Turk) Sanderson, a mod kid who fears neither man nor myth. "That's when we wrap it up."
Sanderson and all the Bruins had plenty of reason to be exhilarated, because the opening losses in Montreal's Forum had an atmosphere of doom about them. Boston had a reasonably clear edge in the play and skated into the last little bit of each game a goal ahead, only to be tied and then swiftly beaten in overtime. To the ordinary fan there was something awesome about those Canadien victories, as if all the speed and experience of all the Habs' 13 Stanley Cup champions had been distilled into a few magical moments, as if all the famous French-Canadian pride had wrapped the Canadiens in ultimate invincibility.
In the first game the Bruins led 2-0 on goals by Sanderson, with less than seven minutes left to play. It was then that Boston's Eddie Shack was penalized for charging and Montreal's John Ferguson slipped a long, soft shot past Goalie Gerry Cheevers. With 56 seconds remaining, Jean Beliveau, majestic and masterful in his ability to meet the occasion, tied the score. And with 42 seconds gone in sudden-death overtime Ralph Backstrom won for Montreal.
April 27, 1969
Game No. 2 was so similar to the first as to be uncanny. Boston rallied from deficits of 1-0 and 2-1 to tie and then go ahead 3-2—this time with six minutes to play. And then as that terrible last minute approached—1:09 remaining—Montreal's Yvan Cournoyer fired from the left point into a melee in front of the Boston net. The puck fell free and the Canadiens' Serge Savard pounced on it. Savard whipped it past Eddie Johnston, who had replaced Cheevers in the Bruin goal. Five minutes into overtime lightning flashed once more, the spirits of departed Canadiens stirred in their shrouds and Mickey Redmond steered Savard's long shot over Johnston's shoulder.
It is the special quality of these Bruins, who finished a mere three points behind Montreal in regular-season play, that they sneer at dynasties and ignore evil omens. Far from being crushed, the Bruins—as their jet left Montreal for Boston—were convinced they were the better team. "They won't beat us again this year," said Coach Harry Sinden. "There is no way they can win from us in Boston [where the Bruins had won 29 games, lost only three and tied six during the season], and I'll guarantee you they won't beat us again in Montreal. We should have won both games and they know it. They've only got five or six men really playing hockey."
(In Montreal, informed of Sinden's remarks. Coach Claude Ruel growled, "They were supposed to win the division but they wound up losing on the road to expansion teams.")
But confident as he was, Sinden permitted himself a nagging thought. "The only thing this team has failed to show me," he said, "is that it can win the big game. You don't win championships without winning the big games, and this team won't play a bigger one than next Thursday night. If we can get to Gump Worsley things will turn around."
The weather was balmy in Boston on Thursday and the Garden's ice on the slow side. Up in the seats the fans seemed strangely decorous. So colorful until now that one Toronto newsman, smarting from the Leafs' losses to Boston in the East semifinals, described it as a "lunatic asylum," the Garden held hundreds of genteel types who had discovered the Bruins—and had the connections to get tickets.
Sinden's longing for goals suddenly was realized. Not only goals but goals from his No. 1 gunner, Phil Esposito, the tall, gorilla-armed center who had run up a record total of 126 points during the season—and had been shut out in Montreal by the tight-checking Backstrom line. Late in the first period Bobby Orr, the all-everything defenseman who is finally old enough to vote, took a big swing from the left point and sizzled a shot at Worsley, the same acrobatic fireplug who had quit in November with a case of nerves and come back to play a very superior goal. The puck hit the skate of Esposito's left wing, Ron Murphy, and caromed off the boards to the Gumper's left. It flew directly onto the stick of Esposito, whose low shot from 15 feet away started the Bruins toward their shutout.
Esposito proceeded to score another goal and assist on the team's other three, thanks partly to the fact that he did not have Backstrom draped over him like a school of eels. In Montreal, Claude Ruel, exercising the home team's prerogative of sending out his lines after the other coach had committed himself, had the last say; in Boston, Harry Sinden had it his way. He matched Esposito's line with Beliveau's, and at last Phil had some freedom.
Conceding afterward that Backstrom had done "a helluva job" on him, Esposito insisted that being whitewashed, in the Forum had not particularly bothered him. "I was getting my chances," he said. "When you're not getting the chances that's when you start to worry. It was funny, though. Ralph was out there to check me, and I said to myself, 'If I don't score, then he doesn't score.' Then he gets the winner in overtime. What can you say?"
Ken Hodge was another of the stars of that first Bruin victory, playing despite a case of flu and a 103° temperature. His tongue was as sharp as his stick. "There are only four or five of their guys who'll play with us. They don't like to get hit—and what the hell have they got, anyway? Nothing like us. Tonight we just played our game for 60 minutes. We took our shots and the Gumper didn't have a good night. That's the way it has to be."
Between last week's games the Bruins were lippy and loose. Saturday they were to spend an hour shooting. In the dressing room beforehand Trainer John Forristall put on a Canadien jersey and marched past the players. He wound up jerseyless in the showers. Undaunted, he retrieved the shirt, climbed to the center of the first balcony as the Bruins practiced and shouted, "We shall overcome." The players hooted him down.
But the Bruins can be serious, too, and by the time they got on a bus that afternoon to go to a secret hideaway for the night the horseplay had ceased. "If we win tomorrow," said Esposito, "we're going to go back to Montreal with an awful lot of momentum."
Sunday brought as spectacular a game as one is ever likely to see. Young Rogatien Vachon was in the Montreal goal relieving Worsley, who had hurt his hand Thursday and now could not flex his glove properly; the masked Cheevers was in goal for Boston. As Thursday was Esposito's game, this was to be Sanderson's and Orr's.
Sanderson is the classic poor boy who makes it and buys the big Cadillac, pals with the swingers and hits the spots. His sideburns are down to here and his bell-bottoms out to there. He goes through money the way Sherman explored Georgia. He has a $350-a-month apartment on Beacon Hill, with a white rug on the floor like you-know-who, and he has a funny itch to wear white skate shoes (management boggles at that). One of Derek's close friends is the Red Sox' Ken (Hawk) Harrelson, the slugger who didn't want to be traded to Cleveland last week.
"The Hawk and the Seagull," says Esposito to Sanderson, gently ribbing his impulsive teammate. "He's the hawk and you're the scavenger."
If a scavenger is something that swoops down upon the remnants of a dying play and makes a feast of it, then Sanderson is a scavenger. Besides shooting a pretty good stick, Sanderson is a tremendous forechecker and a brilliant penalty killer. Up to Sunday's game he had scored no fewer than five goals, in season and after, while the Bruins were shorthanded.
Boston began the game by collecting a penalty in the first minute, putting Sanderson and his time-killing mate Eddie Westfall to the test. The scoring began as Westfall took a pass from Sanderson, broke down the middle and fired on Vachon from 35 feet. The puck ricocheted off his stick high into the air in front of the net. With a Canadien defender leaning on him, Westfall managed to get his stick on the puck and sweep it into the net. That was shorthanded goal No. 1 for Boston Sunday.
Sanderson himself went off for elbowing, and the Canadiens cashed in their manpower advantage on a hot slap shot by Jacques Lemaire. But then the Bruins' John McKenzie drew a holding penalty and Sanderson again was asked to do his thing. Soon Derek was fighting Defenseman J. C. Tremblay for the puck behind the Montreal net—and winning. Out he came to Vachon's left. Bearing down on him was rough-tough John Ferguson. Vulnerable and off-balance, Sanderson nevertheless whipped a low shot between Vachon's pads for the Bruins' second shorthanded goal and his own eighth goal of the playoffs.
It was an essential goal but for Boston a painful play, for Ferguson slammed into Derek, his knee driving hard into Sanderson's thigh. Derek finished out the period, in which Boston blew two beautiful chances to go another goal ahead, but the leg seized on him and he was lost to the Bruins for the second and third periods.
The middle period was tight, tough and scoreless, both sides slower now after the racehorse first, and then in the last period it became a battle of the goal-tenders. Vachon stopped Esposito and later Hodge on what appeared to be certain goals for Boston. With only four minutes left Cheevers shot a leg out to block a 35-foot screamer by Ferguson.
The Canadiens were rolling in on Cheevers now, and one could not help wondering if Montreal would pull off another magical, mystical coup, Forum style. This appeared unlikely when Orr ignited a two-on-one break with Westfall into the Canadien zone. At the blue line he passed off to Westfall. The pair blazed goalward, and Westfall timed a return pass perfectly. Orr, who demonstrated on this play the poise, speed and power that make him uniquely a star, bashed the puck past Vachon, and the Bruins, ahead 3-1, seemed beyond catching—until, that is, Savard scored for Montreal, with 54 seconds remaining. Jitters jangled the crowd while those seconds were harmlessly ticked off.
Sinden was not about to retract his boast that the Bruins would lose no more, and certainly the team had an air of fierce redemption about it. But the sensible bystander, wary of lightning and of ghosts whispering into crimson Canadien ears, would wait awhile before placing any serious bets.