"B's 'Must' Win Three" the Herald Traveler headlines ran before the Rangers' game last night, but already, with the Bruins still clinging to a shot at first place in the Eastern Division of the NHL, Bruins fans were looking to the Stanley Cup.
On Sunday, the last season games will be over. If the Bruins with their next three games, the first place is theirs. But first place? It's only a little more crass money. It's not The Title and, as the past has proven, it guarantees little more than a spot in the Cup playoffs.
When the Bruins go into the Stanley Cup playoffs in a couple of weeks, their season record will mean nothing, for Stanley Cup hockey is different. Close checking and a tight defense are the key to a playoff victory.
One goal can mean ball game for a hockey team in the playoffs, and the psychology of the playoffs dictates that when you get it, you hold on to it.
The psychological advantage of the one goal can seldom change a series' outcome, but it makes for a delicate balance in individual games. In one of Montreal's single goal victories over St. Louis last year, Canadien goalie Gump Worsley deflected a sure St. Louis score with the wrong end of his stick after slippling in front of the net and broke St. Louis' rally late in the game.
For the Bruins, the Stanley Cups poses the choice between tightening their game to conform to traditional Stanley Cup play or continuing to play the wide-open, bruising game that has propelled them to the first division this year. The problem, and there is always a problem with breaking traditions, will come when the Bruins' tough reputation meets NHL officiating.
Three of the NHL officials--Art Shov, John Ashley, and Bruce Hood--have made their name in Boston for calling the penalties by reputation, and at least one of the three is bound to be picked to referee some of the Bruins' games.
The shaded distinction between rough hockey and dirty hockey leaves the Stanley Cup wide open for a contest not between the Bruins and the other teams but between the Bruins and the refs.
With such an unorthodox style of play, the Bruins enter the Eastern Division series as the unknown threat. In the Western Division playoffs, St. Louis should have little trouble disposing of the other young teams in the league. The Blues should face Philadelphia in the first round, with the Oakland Seals and the Los Angeles Kings pairing for the chance to meet them in the second round.
Blues Pick of West
Oakland, the most improved team in the league this year, ought to face St. Louis, but the Blues' all-star goal-tending team of Jacque Planti and Glenn Hall makes the Blues the obvious Western Division pick.
In the East, though, there is still the chance that the Bruins can pull it out. The first-round pairing most likely will be Boston vs. Toronto and first-place Montreal vs. New York, although Detroit could edge out Toronto and meet Boston in the playoffs. Either way, you just have to take the Bruins.
Though New York and their goalie Ed Giacoman, who has given up less than two goals per game during the season, could be the dark horse to foil the oddsmakers, Montreal is the league-leader and, meaningless as first place is, it's still enough to peg them for a first round victory.
Not only the league leader, the Canadiens are a playoff team. They are the oldest team in the league, but that only means that Stanley Cup fever runs deepest in their blood.
Last year, after a good but not exceptional season, the Canadiens slid through the playoffs winning all but one of the 13 games they played. On top of the amazing finish in the Eastern Division this year, the Canadiens would be the favorites to cop the cup no matter who they play.
But in Boston, nobody bets against the Bruins. A so-so team, maligned in the league for 18 years, this year's Bruins are young, aggressive, unpredictable, and they come from Boston.
Even if the playoffs traditionally require defense, this could be the year that the Bruins change all that. They have the highest-scoring line in the history of the NHL; they have Bobby Orr and Phil Esposito, who scored more points this season than any other lineman in history; and they have guts.
In the season series with Montreal, the Bruins have won five of six. If they can make the Canadiens play their game in the semi-finals, it's only a short step past St. Louis, and Boston can tear loose with Bobby Orr this time instead of Carl Yastremzski.