It was a kind of Bobby Orr look-alike contest for defensemen. No centers, wings or goaltenders need apply. There was Boston's Brad Park playing keep-away with the puck, just like Orr did, and keeping Philadelphia Flyers away from Goaltender Gerry Cheevers. There was Philadelphia's Bob (The Count) Dailey, all 6'5" and 210 pounds of him, rushing the puck and spilling bodies with Orr-like daring. There was the New York Islanders' Denis Potvin, the contest winner last season, rallying his suffering teammates with a couple of Orr-style bursts for goals. And there was that triumvirate from Montreal, large Larry Robinson intimidating the enemy by his mere presence on the ice, Guy Lapointe proving Orr's theory that the best defense is a good offense and Serge Savard playing the cool-handed captain of a tight ship.
While the real Orr watched on television from his Toronto hospital room, where he was recovering from Operation No. 6 on his ravaged left knee, the six imitation Orrs took charge—permanently in some cases, temporarily in others—of the Stanley Cup semifinals last week. What they also did was further complicate the nagging question of who, indeed, is "the new Orr."
Park, who as a New York Ranger never measured up to the "as good as Orr" label pinned on him by the club's management, was routinely brilliant for Orr's old Bruins as they swept away the stunned Flyers in four straight games, finishing them off 3-0 Sunday night in Boston. Only a year ago the Flyers had routed the Bruins in the semifinals in five games. What happened? "Last year Park had just had a knee operation and was playing hurt," said Philadelphia Coach Fred Shero. "This year Park's healthy."
Park performed multiple chores for the Bruins, who, ironically, acquired him from the Rangers last season mainly as defense protection in the event that Orr should exercise his free-agent status and sign with some other club—which he did. Park played a minimum of 40 minutes a game in three of Boston's four wins, and in the other he was on the ice for more than 60 minutes as the teams battled into a second period of sudden death before Terry O'Reilly's goal won Game Two for the Bruins after 90:07 of hockey.
May 8, 1977
"I need Park out there 40 minutes a game," says Boston Coach Don Cherry. "I sat down with him and asked him to change his style, to forget his end-to-end rushes, to forget individual recognition. Considering what we've asked him to do, and the help he's had, I don't think there's any question that Park's the best defenseman in the game."
Cherry gave Park the burden of breaking in a rookie defenseman, Colgate graduate Mike Milbury, who was born and raised in the Boston suburb of Walpole, and steadying a pair of cast-off defensemen, Gary Doak and Rick Smith. Confident that Park would be covering up for him, Milbury abandoned his defense position midway through the third period of a tied Game Three Thursday night and bolted up ice with O'Reilly. Milbury skated for the net, and O'Reilly slid him a pass. The pass was slightly behind Milbury, but he reached back and, well, shanked the puck over Goaltender Wayne Stephenson's right shoulder to give the Bruins a 2-1 win.
Park, Milbury and company completely closed down the Philadelphia shooters in Game Four, holding them to a meager 21 shots at Cheevers, who yielded only one goal to the Flyers in the last 174 minutes of the series. Jean Ratelle, another ex-Ranger, gave Boston a 1-0 lead in the second period, and Don Marcotte scored a pair of insurance goals in the third.
In the Canadiens-Islanders confrontation, the Montreal Three—Robinson, Lapointe and Savard—ganged up on the outmanned Potvin and, after beating the Islanders 4-0 Saturday night at the Nassau Coliseum, the Canadiens returned home with a three-games-to-one lead. "How can one team have three defensemen like that?" asked the Islanders' confused Lome Henning.
All three stand at least six feet tall and weigh at least 200 pounds. All three are extremely fast and mobile, and at the whim of Coach Scotty Bowman they occasionally take a shift on one of the wings. Robinson, in fact, regularly moves to a forward position on the Canadiens' power play and places his immovable body at the goaltender's doorstep, where he can screen the goalie's vision and also pick harassed defensemen and force them out of the play.
"Those three guys do so many things, they make it easier for everyone else," says New York's J. P. Parise. "Except for Guy Lafleur and Steve Shutt and Jacques Lemaire, the Montreal forwards are a bunch of plumbers, just like us, but with those three defensemen on their side they can take a lot of chances."
Robinson, particularly, seems to be emerging as the prototype of an entirely new style of defenseman: someone with many of Orr's puck-handling traits, but also someone who can bruise bodies and play policeman when necessary. "It's like being both the quarterback and middle linebacker," says Shero.
Bowman maintains that the 6'3", 210-pound Robinson is "the best body checker in the game." Robinson bounced so many Flyers into the boards during last season's Stanley Cup final that Philadelphia spent the next eight months putting together the deal that brought the 24-year-old Dailey from Vancouver in January. Dailey easily was the best Flyer against the Bruins. "Very simply, Dailey's a superstar, another Robinson," says Cherry. "Philadelphia should get arrested for grand theft for giving up so little to get him."
On the ice Robinson has the reach of a basketball center, and has become a craftsman with his stick. "You think you're safely around him," says New York's Billy Harris, "and suddenly this stick appears from nowhere and takes the puck away from you." Statistically, Robinson led NHL defensemen with 85 points this season, and his plus-minus rating was a spectacular plus-107, meaning that when Robinson was on the ice the Canadiens scored 107 more goals than they gave up. The next best defenseman in the ratings finished with a plus-47.
Robinson, Lapointe and Savard offered Goaltender Ken Dryden perfect protection in Game Two as the Canadiens broke through the Islanders' stiff defenses for three late goals and a 3-0 victory, giving them a two-games-to-nothing lead in the series.
Potvin was inconsequential in both games at Montreal, rarely rushing the puck and repeatedly losing it to the Canadiens' persistent forecheckers. Back on his home ice Thursday night, though, the 23-year-old Potvin silenced, at least for the moment, those critics who claim he cannot singlehandedly lift his team in a big game. His performance was a microcosm of a turbulent season during which he has had frequent personality conflicts with his teammates. He made a bad clearing pass that Montreal instantly converted into a 1-0 lead, then atoned for his mistake by tying the score with a neat goal-mouth tip-in past Dryden. Minutes later Potvin made another bad clearing pass that Montreal turned into another instant goal and a 2-1 lead. But in the closing seconds of the first period Potvin got that goal back, too, beating Dryden from in close. Obviously aroused, Potvin helped the Islanders take command during the next two periods, and New York won impressively, 5-3.
There was nothing Potvin or anyone else could have done for the Islanders two nights later in Game Four. For the first nine minutes Robinson, Lapointe and Savard permitted few opponents to cross the Montreal blue line, while at the other end of the ice the Canadien forwards swarmed over Potvin and his teammates, forced countless careless passes and ripped three goals past Billy Smith. End of game.
And now, barring a miracle Islander revival, the Montreal Three will gang up on Brad Park in the finals.