Granted, it was still in the early years of expansion, but the 1970-’71 Boston Bruins shattered all kinds of all-time, long-standing NHL goal-scoring records. They were the dominant team in the league, and were widely expected to waltz through the playoffs as the defending Stanley Cup champions.
In the first round of the playoffs in April of ‘71, the Bruins hooked up with the Montreal Canadiens. Now, the Habs historically had Boston’s number in the playoffs- dating back, from what I can remember at least, to the 1950s. Then, in 1968 and ’69, Montreal beat an emerging Boston side in the playoffs.
But the 1971 Bruins were thought to be different. They had playoff experience, and iced a fantastic lineup. Goaltending wasn’t their strength, but Gerry Cheevers and Eddie Johnston provided generally solid goalkeeping.
On the last day of the ’71 season, I recall watching on TV as Montreal played the Bruins in Boston on a Sunday afternoon. Montreal played a poor game in front of Phil Myre (I think it was Myre, not Rogie Vachon) in goal. The Bruins put up a lot of goals, padding their already impressive regular-season stats. (I remember being frustrated as a Leaf fan because Dave Keon was hanging on to remain in the top 10 in scoring that year and a couple of Bruins were looking to surpass him on that last day—and did, I think.)
I remember sitting with my Dad, a devout Hab fan, and watching the game. I was pretty ticked at the weak effort Montreal put up in the last game. I boldly predicted that, if the Habs played that way, Boston would kill them in the playoffs, which were to start in a couple of days.
To put things in perspective, the Bruins were loaded. (Above we've included a team photo of the 1970 Cup-winning squad.) If you were around in those days you know all the names, but it all started with Orr and Esposito. They also had a steady if unspectacular (besides Orr) defense, skilled tough guys (Sanderson, McKenzie, Cashman), checkers (Marcotte, Westfall) and lots of guys who could score, like Hodge, Bucyk, Stanfield and ex-Leaf Mike Walton).
For their part, Montreal was still awfully good, too. The season before they had missed the playoffs for the first time in forever, but the circumstances (a story for another day) were suspect and everyone, including the Bruins, breathed a sigh of relief when they didn’t make it. They still had Beliveau and Richard, a young Jacques Lemaire, a strong defense corps (Tremblay, Laperierre, Harper, a young Guy Lapointe) and guys who could fly up front like Cournoyer and Tardiff. They also had the Mahovlich brothers.
Whether or not Montreal was playing possum in that meaningless regular-season finale, I don’t know. I do know they made the big decision to go with “rookie” Ken Dryden in goal over either Myre or Vachon in the playoffs. I don’t think Dryden had played even ten games after being called up from the minors. He had played at Cornell and was a college “star”, but in those days, that meant nothing in the NHL. He went on to play for the Canadian national team a bit, I think, then played half a season or so in the AHL for Montreal’s farm team before being called up late in the season. (Interestingly, Dryden had actually been “drafted” by the Bruins in the olden-days NHL draft in 1964, but they traded his rights to Montreal when he was maybe 17 or so.)
In any event, the Bruins had no problem in Game 1 of the series, and some observers thought Montreal would turn to one of their “regular” goalies for the rest of the series.
They didn’t and things looked equally glum in Game 2 (I loathed the Canadiens, and the Bruins almost as much, but I still wanted Boston to win) for the Habs, as Boston led 5-1, I think it was, well into the second period. The Canadiens still stayed with Dryden.
I remember high school buddies of mine who were Montreal fans who told me the next day they stopped listening to the game on the radio (The Leaf-Ranger playoff game was on TV locally), disgusted with how Montreal was performing.
But something happened.
I believe it was Henri Richard who scored late in the second period to make it 5-2 Boston. Still no worries, I thought. (I was listening to the game on WBZ radio in Boston.)
But in the third period Beliveau and John Ferguson were the catalysts of a stunning comeback. Boston absolutely folded under Montreal’s pressure, and when it was over, Montreal walked away with a 7-5 victory.
The Bruins were dazed, and Montreal built on that to win Game 3 at the Forum. Then Bobby Orr had his best game of the series and Boston evened the series at two games apiece heading back to Boston.
The Bruins won at home, and again everyone was predicting that it was “over”.
But Montreal won at home, and then on a Sunday afternoon (afternoon, for U.S. television) Montreal played a beautiful road game and won 4-2. The Bruins couldn’t beat Dryden when they needed to. I remember a gorgeous goal by Frank Mahovlich who was set up as he was flying by Cheevers at the edge of the Boston crease and got a beautiful feed from Lemaire, I think it was.
After the game, a frustrated Orr was quoted as saying he was “going home to learn how to play hockey”.
Orr had been victimized (a rare occurrence) by some good Montreal forechecking which led to one of the goals in that last game, though he was hardly the problem. The guy was an absolute hockey warrior for the Bruins that spring, as he always was.
The problem was that that particular Bruins team didn’t know how to beat Montreal. They couldn’t do it in ’68, but in fairness, they were too young. But in ’69 and ’71 they were on top of their game, and lost to Montreal both times.
In ’71 they were, in short arrogant. Lulled by their exploits against weak expansion teams, they thought no one could beat them, and Montreal was not a team to be disrespected. And it cost the Bruins big time.
The Bruins did win the next year and probably should have won again in ’74, upset by the upstart Flyers. Again, they may have underestimated their opponent. That just added to the reputation of that particular Orr-Espo led team as under-achievers.
In the later 1970s, Montreal beat the Bruins three years in a row in the playoffs, twice fairly handily and once, in 1979, when Boston (I believe) deserved to win a 7-game series. I hated the Bruins but loved the tenacity the team displayed with Cashman, Jonathan, O’Reilly, along with ex-Rangers Park, Ratelle and that whole Don Cherry bunch.
Until well into the 1980s, Boston simply couldn’t beat Montreal when it counted- in the playoffs. I would go so far as to argue that, to this day, while the Bruins won the Cup in 1970 and 1972, they never beat “the best”—Montreal—to get there.
And that, I believe, still bothers them to this day.Toronto Maple Leaf hockey blog