Forty-eight games do not a season make, but if the NHL awards dinner had been held during last weekend's All-Star break instead of after the Stanley Cup finals, the Boston Bruins would have hauled home a pantry-load of silver. The surprising Bruins would have had the best record in the league (27-16-5), their goaltending duo of Andy Moog and Reggie Lemelin would have won the Jennings Trophy for allowing the fewest goals (2.90 per game), and the best defenseman in the NHL, Bruins captain Ray Bourque, would have been handed the Norris Trophy.
The MVP? Well, with all due respect to Wayne Gretzky of the L.A. Kings and Pat LaFontaine of the New York Islanders, hockey is as much about stopping goals as scoring them, and a defenseman has not won this award (the Hart Trophy) since 1972, the year that Bobby Orr led Boston to its most recent Stanley Cup. Bourque, who has been the Bruins' horse, is a worthy candidate. At the All-Star break, he led NHL defensemen in scoring with 13 goals and 43 assists, had an average of 30 minutes of ice time a game, was among the league's plus-minus leaders with a +23 and had covered the defensive zone like some sort of fiery rash.
"I've never seen a better all-around player than Ray," says Moog, who has played with both Gretzky and Paul Coffey, the record-holder for goals by a defenseman, with 48. "Paul could carry a game, but Ray can carry a game and never touch the puck, like when he's killing a penalty. Even considering Wayne. Ray's the most complete player in the game."
Early in the season Boston's rookie coach Mike Milbury expressed similar sentiments—only stronger. "Ray Bourque is the best player in hockey right now," said Milbury. "Better than Gretzky, better than [Mario] Lemieux, better than anyone."
Nobody laughed. Bourque has given Milbury no cause to back off from that statement, although in the interest of not wearing him into the ground, Milbury has cut Bourque's ice time from the 35 to 40 minutes a game he was playing in October and November to a more reasonable 25 to 28 minutes. Bourque, who had scored only five goals in the first 39 games of the season, responded with eight in his next eight games, a stretch in which the Bruins went 6-1-1 to overtake the Buffalo Sabres in the Adams Division and move into first place in the overall standings. What else could Milbury request of Bourque, he was recently asked. "Just a Stanley Cup," he replied.
Were it not for coach Al Arbour's remarkable reconstruction of the Islanders, Milbury, who spent slightly more than 11 seasons, from 1975-76 to '86-87, with the Bruins as a defenseman, would make a good choice for first-half Coach of the Year. Milbury, 37, has breathed new life into a team that was 18-20-10 after 48 games a year ago and was dispatched in five games in last spring's playoffs by its nemesis, the Montreal Canadiens, who have won 21 of 24 playoff series from Boston since the teams first met in postseason play 61 years ago.
Unorthodox and unaffected, Milbury, a Colgate graduate, is an intriguing combination of intellect and wild-eyed passion. In his playing days he once climbed into the stands at Madison Square Garden and pounded a spectator with a shoe. Yet he was respected enough for his smarts that he was elected the Bruins' player representative and was one of the first members of the players' union who had the moxie and the insight to challenge the leadership of NHL Players Association executive director Alan Eagleson, an agent whose own interests have often been at odds with the concerns of the NHLPA.
Milbury has heaved a few ancient hockey coaching traditions out the window. He tries, for instance, to give the Bruins one full day off a week, something that would have been anathema to his predecessors. "I do it as much for me as for the players," he says. On at least one occasion this season, feeling that his players had stopped listening to him, he removed himself from behind the bench and watched the third period from the press box.
Milbury will call his one timeout at almost any time during a game, eschewing the theory that it is best saved for the final minute, when a coach might want to give his key players a rest. Last week in Hartford, for instance, Boston led 3-0 in the second period, the Whalers scored, and Milbury, sensing a momentum switch, called time. "I will do some weird things," says Milbury. Face it, it's tough not to like a hockey coach who takes his family to New Hampshire to ski during the All-Star break.
Before taking over in Boston, Milbury, who spent the last two years as coach and general manager of the Maine Mariners of the American Hockey League, had a good handle on the Bruins' three primary sources of woe: their play at home, their character and their power play. To correct the first two weaknesses, Milbury had to do a selling job. Solving the power-play problem called for a tactical change.
The Bruins' record last season in Boston Garden was a piddling 17-15-8; it was the first time since 1966-67 that they failed to win 20 games at home. Milbury addressed the issue by using the age-old knee-jerk technique of questioning his players' pride. Says Milbury, "I told them, 'Teams came in here and embarrassed you last year.' " Sometimes the simplest messages are the most effective: This season Boston has improved its home winning percentage from .525 to .707, fifth-best in the league.
After using his captain as a sounding board, Milbury also challenged his players' will to win. Says Bourque, "Mike called me last May, before he even had the coaching job, and asked me all kinds of questions about whether we had the character to win. It seemed like we got satisfied real easy last year and had trouble pulling ourselves out of it whenever we hit a skid."
Milbury decided to make known his doubts to the Bruins the first time he addressed them at training camp. "I didn't think they had the drive to continue to excel after achieving some success, and I'm still not sure," he says. "Fortunately, we have two guys who have character in spades."
Those would be Bourque and Cam Neely. "I can't ever remember saying at the end of a game, 'Raymond didn't feel like it tonight,' " says Boston general manager Harry Sinden, who as either coach or general manager has helped guide the Bruins to 22 straight winning seasons, currently the longest such stretch in pro sports. "We get players in trades, and they can't believe his work ethic."
Bourque, 29, whose five-year, $600,000 contract runs through the 1991-92 season, is understandably miffed that he's making only one-quarter of the more than $2 million a year Gretzky and Lemieux have recently signed for and less, even, than some of the league's other top defensemen, namely, the Philadelphia Flyers' Mark Howe, the Canadiens' Chris Chelios, and Coffey, of the Pittsburgh Penguins. "I'm not saying he's worth $2 million," says Bourque's agent, Steve Freyer, "but he does put fannies in the seats."
As for Neely, 24, he has thrived under Milbury to become the best right wing in the league. His 33 goals at the break represented a remarkable pace for anyone, but that total was especially large for a player whom Sinden calls "as good a bodychecking forward as we've ever had, on a par with Terry O'Reilly."
O'Reilly coached the Bruins for almost three seasons, and he believed that a player should meet every challenge head-on, much as he did as a player. If the other team wants to play rough, play rough. If it wants to fight, then fight. Not only is Neely Boston's best goal-scorer and checker, but at 6'1", 210 pounds, he's also its best fighter. "Cam and Terry were not always on the same wavelength," says Milbury, "and Cam had a little identity crisis: 'What am I, a grinder or a scorer?' He didn't know when he should drop his gloves."
Milbury has stressed to Neely that he wants him on the ice all night, and if that means skating away from a few challenges, so be it—strange advice from the man who is the No. 2 Bruin (behind O'Reilly) in career penalty minutes. "I was guilty of losing it too often," says Milbury. "I'm not preaching pacifism now, but I learned a lesson. We've been accused lately in the Boston papers of being wimps, but we're not trying to be the toughest team in hockey; we're trying to be the best team."
Wimps? The Big Bad Bruins? Fact is, this Boston team is neither big nor bad. At the break the Bruins were averaging 17.6 penalty minutes a game, second fewest in the NHL and 6.5 minutes fewer than last season. Neely had reduced his penalty minutes from 2.6 minutes a game in 1988-89 to 1.6 this season, and he had incurred only three fighting majors; he had seven at the same point last season.
"I've got to play physical." says Neely, whose smooth, almost calm, skating style belies his tremendous strength. "I can't try to be fancy with the puck like certain players can. But Mike has asked me to try to maintain my cool, and I've been able to so far."
At the break, 14 of Neely's goals had come on power plays, which put him second in the NHL in that category and helped propel the Bruins from 16th in power-play efficiency to sixth. In a tactical change from last season, Milbury and Ted Sator, the former Sabre coach who's now a Bruin assistant, have moved center Craig Janney—Neely's linemate and a terrific playmaker and passer—behind the net when Boston has a man advantage. Janney can better orchestrate the attack from that spot. "Last year the power play set up along the boards," says Milbury, "but if we have learned one thing from Gretzky, it is that so much happens from behind the net. You get the entire defense facing backwards when the puck's back there."
One thing Bruin fans have learned this season is not to bail out early to try to beat the traffic. With this young (average age: 26) and unpredictable team, no lead is safe. On Nov. 16, in one of the more remarkable comebacks of this or any other season, Boston trailed Montreal 2-0 with 2½ minutes to go. The Bruins scored three times in 57 seconds to steal the victory. Two nights later Boston fell behind the New Jersey Devils 4-1 with 2:30 to go in the second period before scoring five unanswered goals to win 6-4. The Bruins have won three games in overtime and another five by scoring the winning goal within the last 3:03 of regulation play.
But Boston has been known to give away wins just as fast. Against the Toronto Maple Leafs on Dec. 30, the Bruins led 6-1 with two minutes remaining in the second period. They collapsed and lost 7-6 in overtime. The Whalers, New York Rangers and Vancouver Canucks have each beaten Boston with a goal in the final minute of regulation play, and Hartford earned its 5-5 tie last week after pulling its goalie and scoring off a crucial face-off.
Aside from face-offs, the Bruins' biggest weakness is that after Neely, their firepower fizzles. Boston went 2-7-1 over its first 10 games in December as the offense sputtered to a virtual standstill, scoring only 2.6 goals a game. On Dec. 13, Sinden acquired veteran Dave Christian, a former 41-goal scorer, from the Washington Capitals for left wing Bob Joyce, and Christian helped pull the Bruins out of their scoring slump. However, the bottom line in Boston is that whatever success the Bruins enjoy this season will result from their ability to keep the puck out of their net.
The defense doesn't have to look very far for inspiration. On Jan. 2, Gord Kluzak returned to the lineup after having missed all but three games of 1988-89 and the first 39 games of this season following the ninth and 10th operations on his left knee. "It's like starting up an old car" is how Kluzak describes the elaborate pregame ritual he goes through to prepare his knee.
Kluzak, 25, a first-round draft choice in 1982, has since played four seasons and missed 3½. Few believed he would make it back after his last layoff. The Bruins are clearly a better team with Kluzak in the lineup, if only because his teammates know that each shift could be the last of his career. So everyone skates like hell.
Says Bourque, "It picked everybody up to have Gordie back. He's a key for us. We went to the finals two years ago with him in the lineup."
And to the finals they would like to return. As Milbury said after the Bruins reached the break with a hard-hitting 2-2 tie against the Calgary Flames, who happen to be the defending Stanley Cup champs, "I'd be happy for the opportunity to play them again in May."