When it comes to the Boston Bruins, there aren’t many collective boogey men out there that have caused more angst and consternation than the Montreal Canadiens.
Over the years, when the Habs have been great, Boston had no chance. When the Habs weren’t so great, Boston still found ways to lose (Steve Penney, anyone?). Even in 1979, when the Bruins had a team that nearly matched up with the threepeat-and-going-for-four Canadiens, they not only lost a grip on a game they had all but won, but did so in such devastating fashion that the sports psyche scars of that overtime defeat (and of course- the Habs went on to win a fourth straight Stanley Cup in a walk over the Rangers) still remain for those old enough to remember it.
That’s why last night’s 4-1 win over the flailing sans Carey Price Habs feels so good for Bruins fans (and I would add, more than a few Canadiens fans who have seen enough of coach Michel Therrien).
Goals by Max Talbot, Patrice Bergeron (on a nifty play by David Pastrnak before beating Mike Condon on a wraparound), David Pastrnak (another wraparound) and Brad Marchand (empty net) gave Tuukka Rask plenty of offensive support. However, it was the Finn’s 38-save brilliance last night that secured the victory, just the fifth of his career against Montreal (15 losses).
By itself, the win doesn’t mean a whole lot. Sure- it kept the B’s in a playoff position (Tampa bumped them out of third place with their win) and pushed Montreal into 10th place in the Eastern Conference. With nearly half a season remaining, no one should be planning any victory parades or playing a funeral dirge for the Canadiens just yet.
However, the victory- any victory against Montreal- has a much deeper meaning for the Bruins and their fans.
The B’s haven’t been good enough to sweep their big, bad rivals from Montreal this season, but unlike last year, they’ve managed to secure a couple of important victories against them on the road. Even if the B’s haven’t found a way to beat their nemesis at home, just winning games at this stage is a moral victory and prevents continued malaise and an inferiority complex that has long been more of a fixture on the Boston side of the rivalry than the other way around.
Leigh Montville, who penned unforgettable columns in the Boston Globe when I was growing up, actually wrote the single greatest piece I have ever seen written on the Bruins-Habs rivalry not for the Globe, but for Sports Illustrated way back in 1988.
He wrote it as an ode to the decades of ignominious failures of the B’s at the hands of the Canadiens, and it came out before the Adams Division final series that year. For those who might not remember, the Bruins had been bounced from the playoffs by the Habs from 1984-87, but dug out of an 0-1 hole to win the next four games and close out the stunned Canadiens at home in the Montreal Forum thanks to a pair of goals by Cam Neely and Steve Kasper (in what was arguably his finest hour as a Bruins player) along with some major heroics in net from Rejean “Reggie” Lemelin, who made Patrick Roy look mortal at the other end of the ice.
But before that 1988 series victory, the first the Bruins had achieved since 1943, happened- Montville described the two teams in his April 25, 1988 column titled “No Gain, Just Pain” thusly:
The Canadiens have always worn the top hats and lived in the house on the hill. Superior. Grand. Elegant. How many NHL teams have been called elegant? How many players? The elegant Canadiens. Their fans arrive at the Forum, the basilica of perspiration on St. Catherine Street, dressed in coats and ties, for a night of opera on ice, penalty announcements in two languages, s’il vous plait. The Montreal teams have been built on grace and speed, continental cuteness. The Flying Frenchmen. Drawing-room hockey, served on a white linen tablecloth. Elegant.
The Bruins have always been the poor relations. A collection of Al Capp characters, woofing and scratching and emerging from that dogpatch home on top of a train station. Elegance? Punch you in the mouth, you say that again.
The Bruins have reveled in their bowling-shirt earthiness. Hockey was a hard hat job for them long before the introduction of the helmet. They play in the smallest rink in the NHL and have tailored their team and dispositions to fit this environment as surely as the Red Sox have looked for right-handed boppers to hit baseballs over the left field wall at Fenway Park. Want to play at Boston Garden? Bring your elbows.
Montville used one of the true icons of Boston Bruins fandom- the late, great play-by-play man Fred Cusick to help underscore the tale of woe and provide an amazing perspective of a rivalry that he saw unfold in all it’s gory detail until the B’s broke through in 1988. That Cusick was able to witness (and call) Boston playoff wins in 1990, 1991, 1992 and 1994 before he retired in 1997 helped remove some of the sting of some memorable defeats earlier in his career. That Cusick passed away before Boston beat Montreal en route to the 2011 Stanley Cup championship is as much a tragedy that the celebration of a life so well lived can allow.
Here, Montville further expounds on the B’s-Habs history through Cusick’s lens:
“The year we should have won was 1971,” Cusick says. “We were better. Much better. Bobby Orr and Phil Esposito and all of those people. We won the first game, 3-1, then were ahead 5-1 midway through the second. I remember doing interviews between periods about possible opponents in the next round. That’s how certain it was. Then Montreal started scoring goals and won the game 7-5. And Dryden was a rookie and he made some big saves and…still we should have won.
“And then 1979. Too many men on the ice. That was the other one. That was the one no one will ever forget.”
Six men on the ice. Sixty men on the ice. How many men on the ice? The story has become legend, the number swollen, in less than a decade, the highlight (lowlight) of the entire streak, stowed in the same, sad Boston footlocker as the ground ball that rolled through Bill Buckner’s legs and the home run that the Yankees’ Bucky Dent hit into the screen on a fall afternoon. Who was the extra man on the ice? Terry O’Reilly? Mike Milbury? Stan Jonathan? Don Marcotte? All of the above? Any of the above? Sometimes, in the retelling, it seems as if there were a brass band on the ice, every member wearing a Bruins uniform. Six men. 60 men. 1,000 men, doing close-order drill as coach Don Cherry barked commands from a step-ladder. Who loses a game, a series, because too many men are on the ice?
There were 74 seconds left. The Bruins were ahead 4-3, seventh game, in Montreal, a minute and 14 seconds from ending the streak. Six men on the ice? The penalty was called: the Bruins had a crowd on the ice far too long for any official to miss. Then there was Guy Lafleur firing the tying the goal on the power play. Here was Yvon Lambert in overtime, taking the pass from Mario Tremblay, drilling the puck past Bruin goalie Gilles Gilbert.
“I want to cry for every one of these guys,” goalie Gerry Cheevers, a backup that night, said in the Boston dressing room. “Each guy I see makes me want to start crying all over. I just feel so sorry for all of them. They just tried so hard. I’ve never seen a team try so hard.”
“What bothers me is that my 12-year-old son was watching the game,” captain Wayne Cashman said. “I have been telling him forever that hard work always pays off. Always. What do I tell him now?”
You get the message.
The Boston-Montreal rivalry means something. It always means something.
Whether they’re playing a “meaningless” exhibition game in September, a regular season contest in November, a much-hyped Winter Classic match on New Year’s Day or the two teams are embroiled in a white-knuckle, winner-take-all seventh game of a playoff series. Things broke Boston’s way in 2011, but in 2014, not so much.
This is what makes the history between the two clubs, enriched by the genuine dislike that each generation of the B’s-Habs rosters have one another, so special.
24 Stanley Cup wins to 6. That’s how the ultimate scorecard reads.7 of those 24 Cups the Canadiens won came at the expense of the Bruins in the final series. The B’s have never beaten the Habs in a Stanley Cup final, and unless the NHL’s structure changes, they never will. However, Boston fans can smugly talk about 1993- that’s the last time the Canadiens hefted hockey’s silver chalice, and the 22-year drought is the longest in club history. Until 2011, Boston could only look forlornly to 1972- a championship won without beating the Canadiens. The B’s lost to Philly in ’74 then in back-to-back years in ’77-’78. They then ran into the Edmonton Oilers dynasty, getting swept in 1988 and trounced in five games in 1990 after winning the President’s Trophy.
What do Bobby Orr, Phil Esposito, Johnny Bucyk, Milt Schmidt, Brad Park, Terry O’Reilly and Gerry Cheevers all have in common? As players on the Boston Bruins, they never beat Montreal in a single playoff series. Not once. If you know anything about the history of the Boston Bruins, then you know each one of those players is firmly enshrined in the franchise’s pantheon of heroes and yet- individually and collectively- none were ever able to shake hands with the Canadiens at center ice as the victor.
When you get down to it, no team has been responsible for more collective heartache by those who love the Boston Bruins than the bleu, blanc et rouge. Much like Yankees-Red Sox, the ledger is tilted heavily in favor of the other guys, so Boston fans have to savor the wins however they get them.
In retrospect- last night’s win was barely a blip on the radar for most hockey fans. Even for some of the younger Bruins fans who grew up in the better times, when Boston was winning more playoff series against Montreal than they lost, last night’s win wasn’t too much of a big deal. But for those of us who can remember, those of us who greeted the bridge between spring and summer as the ending of the Bruins’ season at the hands of the Canadiens, Boston’s 24th win of the 2015-16 campaign meant something. It always does.
Montville started that favorite column, once a symbolic cross of what it meant to be a fan of the Boston Bruins, with the following passage:
The uniforms have not changed. The people have not changed. Nothing has changed. Nothing ever changes. There are 1,000 guys named Pierre and 1,000 more named Guy and Jean and Boom Boom and Rocket and Pocket Rocket and all the rest. No change.
Things have changed since 1988. The B’s have won 7 of 12 playoff series against Montreal. There are no Pierres or Guys or Jeans on the 2015-16 version of the Canadiens, but Max and Pernell Karl-“P.K.” and Carey and Brendan and the rest of the rogues who carry on the legacy of the Flying Frenchmen still give the Bruins more than they can handle.
Enjoy the win for now and then turn the page.
At least until the next time these two teams meet.
It is sure to matter.
Here is one of my personal favorite Bruins-Montreal moments: Boston Garden November 1989. Was a senior in HS and saw this game with my dad- what a finish! So much going on here: Bruins down 2-0 in final 2:25 of the game, three goals by Boston in 57 seconds by Ray Bourque, Cam Neely and Glen Wesley. The late Pat Burns behind the Habs bench (Mike Milbury for the B’s) The aforementioned Fred Cusick and Derek Sanderson with the call:
“Ludwig fell down…”