Bruins redux

Observers were impressed by how little emotion the Bruins demonstrated when they clinched "first spot," as they call it. After grinding through the hellacious NHL regular season crisscrossing North America through the length of winter, emerging in the spring at the top of your Division ought to mean something. One recalls the Red Sox going bonkers a couple of years back upon barely making the wildcard.

But to the kids currently sporting the black and gold it was clear that finishing first this season didn't amount to much. There was no champagne swigged let alone sprayed, or even loud talk, nor barely a smile. Hockey, of course, is a considerably more reserved and regimented game than baseball, favoring greater stoicism. Still, even by the sterner standards of a tougher game such restraint was noteworthy.

It's been 39 years since a Bruin waltzed with Lord Stanley's precious Cup. When last we knew the moment Dick Nixon was still on top of his game. Watergate had not yet happened. Paul was the Pope. The "Godfather" was playing at the local Bijou. And the Red Sox were hoping off-season acquisitions of Marty Pattin, Tommy Harper, and Danny Cater would prove enough to get them back on top. Wrong again!

It was in New York -- which made it much sweeter back then -- that the Bruins last copped sport's most sacred bauble in May of 1972, finishing off a notably gritty Rangers team in six. What followed remains high among the most colorful of New England's great sporting moments.

The plane ride back to Boston was chaotic, landing at 2:15 a.m. with everybody aboard standing and clutching a beer. "Hang on," yelled the pilot. And then we were down. When they opened the doors, thousands of revelers were swarming the tarmac and long hallways of the terminal while dozens of overwhelmed police stood by watching and smiling. So elated was the mob, members of the media were even borne off on their shoulders. State Police had to rescue Messrs Orr, Esposito and Sanderson, sneaking them off into the night disguised. In the rampage, people actually abandoned their cars along the approaches to the airport including the middle of Callahan Tunnel. It was absolute madness.

And two days later, when the madness stretched over every square inch of City Hall Plaza, Kevin White dumped a bucket of beer over the head of Pie McKenzie and from the mayoral balcony a plastered Wayne Cashman tossed his socks to the joyful mob below. It was the zenith of the spectacular love affair the entire region had with a swashbuckling brigade of brash Canadian kids led by the young Galahad Himself, Robert Gordon Orr.

At their height, the "Big Bad Bruins" spread happiness around this town like a merry band of skating, slamming, soaring Johnny Appleseed's. Mighty Caesar in all of his glory never was accorded a more raucous tribute than the Bruins received that glorious May Day. But like all romances that become too intense it would be sadly too brief. Within but a couple of weeks, an expansion draft combining with the raids of the upstart World Hockey Association cut into the essence of that great team even as Master Orr was facing more surgery.

Some four decades later, they are still scratching to reclaim what was lost, in a game greatly changed in a league greatly diluted and with the once eternal youth, Bobby Orr, now well into his '60s. Where did the time go? It would likely not be the same if it were to happen again, although it would be amusing to test that thesis would it not?

Yet another such opportunity is now at hand. It happens every spring. But if most years the Bruins get into the playoffs so do 15 other teams in this much too expanded league so we needn't make too much out of that.

Do they have a chance? There are maybe only four -- six at most -- teams that have the potential for greatness and one of them, the Penguins, has been lately sabotaged by notably nasty injuries. The Bruins are not one of that handful of teams considered potentially elite but they are one of the half dozen 'borderline powers' and thereby at the top of that cluster of some 20 teams that bridge the very good from the very bad. It's called "parity" and if -- on any given evening -- one of the 20 wins or loses to another of the 20 it is no surprise. They are all roughly equal.

While rare it's hardly impossible for one of this great mass of glorified mediocrity to break out and go all the way. In the past decade, both Carolina and Tampa have proven that you can make it happen when your goalie gets hot, and you get lucky and stay healthy, and your coach is equal to it, and one of the power-houses hits a wall, and all the moons, tides, and stars are aligned perfectly. Are the Bruins likely to get that lucky? If you have been awake and attentive the last four decades you know the answer to that one. The Bruins are not now nor have they ever been what you would call, a "lucky team."

These Bruins have the goaltending. No chap who has ever come to town in the four major sports has ever been a bigger surprise than Tim Thomas. He's a gallant character, capable of galvanizing his team, and at his best in big games. He's a delight and while Tuukka Rask is too young and erratic to carry them he may be the best back-up in the league.

These Bruins are also tough enough even if they don't always play as tough as they can and should. It was a vaguely puzzling lack of that requisite edge that great Bruins teams always have in abundance that led to their mortifying loss to the Flyers last spring when they suffered the historic indignity of blowing a three game lead, although badly-timed injuries were equally a factor. One can't imagine their admirable captain, Zdeno Chara, allowing that to happen again. The mammoth Slovakian defender's focus this year seems almost scary.

But do these Bruins have enough depth, especially on defense? Do they have adequate big-game experience and discipline? Is the power-play, so critical when scoring opportunities become so limited, their undoing? Will their lack of a true sniper doom them? Will an excessive burden finally wear down the Goliath, Chara? Will the new boy, the Czech defenseman Thomas Kaberle obtained at such expense from Toronto, prove not to have a higher gear now that he's finally playing in important games? Will their young hotshot forwards who are capable of scoring bursts but are uniformly inconsistent all fall asleep at once? How many of these issues can Coach Claude Julien effectively deal with should he need to?

It's that last factor that's most questionable. Coaches have a powerful influence on the outcome of big hockey games. Julien is obviously an honorable, reasonable, and principled hockey-man. This is not a personal attack. But he has also clearly not yet demonstrated that he ranks with the titans of his difficult calling. Hev's been here four years and made the playoffs four times but has never made it beyond the second round which is where they separate the legitimate from the pretenders.

You can count on one hand the number of coaches who have lasted with the Bruins five years; at least since the Age of Art Ross. It's never been a very forgiving franchise. Under Harry Sinden, Julien would have been gone last spring after the infamous collapse against Philadelphia. Present management is softer on the issue but they have much riding on these playoffs, having sacrificed promising youth and gambled heavily on the likes of Kaberle in a rash bid to go for it Now.

Doubtless the troops had all of this in mind when they made light of winning the division, recognizing it as only the first tentative step on a still long and very difficult road.