As the hockey season opened, the Boston Bruins were slavering to get at the champion Montreal Canadiens. A good many Bruins still believed the Habs had euchred them out of the Stanley Cup last spring with mirrors or old Quebecois curses. Derek Sanderson, the Bruins' talkative center, suggested in a widely circulated Canadian magazine that Montreal lacked both talent and guts. Uh-huh. Well, Boston got at Montreal last Saturday night in the Forum, and when the game was barely half over a fan seated high in the balcony put a trombone to his mouth and began playing taps. He was not playing over the ruins of the Canadien dynasty, mes amis. The score at that moment was 5-1 for the home team, and it was obvious that a rout was in the making. When it was finally over, the Canadiens had skated off with a 9-2 victory.
Almost as startling as the final score was the placid manner in which the Bruins accepted defeat. To be sure, they had lost a game in Toronto three nights before. Coach Harry Sinden called it "the softest game they've played in three years; they didn't hit a soul out there." This naturally inclined Montrealers to believe the Bruins would come out with their brass knucks on and, when they did not, people started asking why.
The obvious reason is that the Bruins miss Defenseman Ted Green and Sanderson himself much more than they had at first anticipated. After all, Green—who is out for the season with a severe head injury—for years has been the meanest Bruin of them all, a player so tough he made the others a little bit tougher just by lacing on his skates. Sanderson, who is sidelined temporarily with a knee injury, is also the intimidating type, but is most valuable as a play-maker and penalty killer. He makes the Bruins a scoring threat even when they are shorthanded.
Before last week, however, things could not have gone much better for Boston. Taking advantage of six games with expansion clubs, the Bruins ran up five wins and two ties in their first seven games. The wondrous Bobby Orr was off to his best start and even leading the league in scoring—something a defenseman is not supposed to do.
Meanwhile, the Canadiens were floundering. Jean Beliveau was exhausted from a summer filled with personal appearances and product endorsements. At 38 he was finding it hard to play himself back into shape. Little Yvan Cournoyer, a 43-goal gunner last season, was out with a broken nose; Defenseman J. C. Tremblay with a broken hand. John Ferguson was playing but not fighting, and that isn't like John. "It's my thumb," he said. "I've got to be careful. I can't fight for another week or so."
While Boston was losing to Toronto, the Canadiens were badly outplayed in a 4-1 loss to Minnesota. They forthwith hopped a plane to Chicago, bedded down for five hours and then flew on to St. Louis. The Habs considered themselves fortunate indeed to gain a come-from-behind 2-2 tie with the Blues on Thursday.
As Saturday's game began, the Bruins led the East Division with 13 points, and the poor li'l Canadiens were in third place with 10. Less than four minutes were gone when Beliveau, leading a power play, dug the puck out of a corner to the left of Boston Goalie Ed Johnston and put a perfect pass on Mickey Redmond's stick out front. Redmond scored from 25 feet. Beliveau, who was to take his regular turn the entire game, was demonstrating how exhausted Canadiens miraculously regain their touch in big Forum games. Two minutes after the Redmond goal, Ferguson parked in front of Johnston and tipped in Terry Harper's long shot. Had Green been there to dispute that turf, Fergy said later, "I know I couldn't have stayed there as long as I did."
In the second period came the deluge—six goals for Montreal, one by Wayne Cashman for Boston. For the Canadien fans it was a connoisseur's treat of exquisite position play, passes unerringly given off and received and speed, speed, speed. Just nine seconds into the period, Henri Richard took a long lead pass from Harper and broke in alone on Johnston, putting Montreal ahead 3-0. Then came goals by Bobby Rousseau, Redmond again, old Claude Provost, the pesky puck stealer, Ralph Backstrom and Defenseman Ted Harris.
The teams traded goals in a much quieter third period, although there was some excitement toward the end when Harris and Boston's Jim Harrison got in some heavy pokes at one another. Ominously for Boston, it was Harris who started the brawl. Ted came off the ice dripping blood from his battered nose, too proud to reach up and wipe the blood away.
"Not bad, eh?" said Ferguson afterward as he stripped tape from his damaged thumb. "Pretty good for a team with no talent, no guts."
Said Defenseman Jacques Laperriere: "The best thing for Boston to do is shut up and play hockey. Last year they were supposed to put us way up there in the galleries. We didn't say anything. We just shut up and played hockey."
A couple of nights earlier, St. Louis Coach Scotty Bowman had marveled at how the Canadiens—dead tired—had somehow tied his Blues. Bowman knows his Habs, too, for he spent 14 years in the Montreal organization. "They're a proud bunch," he said. "When they lose they don't make excuses, because nobody would listen if they did. So they just play. If they play a bad game, they take it out on the team they play next. One time last year they came in here and Hubert Humphrey was campaigning for President, and he was given their hotel rooms. They wound up in a real fleabag: no hot water, no heat, bad beds, you name it. Well, the next night they blew us off the ice, that's all."
In precisely that manner were the Bruins—tight-lipped now—humiliated in the season's-biggest game so far. "The other teams, they're supposed to be up for us, aren't they?" said Jean Beliveau in the dressing room. "After all, we are the champions."