Editor’s note: While the games are on pause, the Globe is reaching into its archives to bring you “Replay,” articles from the past that highlight something interesting, timely, or revealing. This column by Leigh Montville on the infamous too-many-men-on-the-ice Bruins-Canadiens game appeared on Friday, May 11, 1979, under the headline, “Bruins fall, 5-4, in overtime after Gilbert’s gymnastics.”
MONTREAL — And over in one corner, Gerry Cheevers tried not to cry. He did not succeed.
His eyes moved from one player to another in the concrete bunker of a dressing room, from Wayne Cashman to Gilles Gilbert to whomever happened to be passing, from player to player, friend to friend, and the heartbreak just tore him apart. See that guy and that guy, that one and all the others? The tears formed naturally in the corner of the goaltender’s eyes.
“I want to cry for every one of them,” the grown man said late last night. “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 . . .”
There were other things to say, but why bother? Why try? Montreal Canadiens 5. Boston Bruins 4. The end. The absolute pits of an end here again in the Forum, the deadest end of all, 9:33 into sudden-death overtime in the extension of the seventh game of the seven-game semifinal series for the Stanley Cup.
How do you measure the sadness of it all? Surely not in grand terms, like life and death, street-corner accidents and malignant disease, but on a gut level, how do you measure it? The sight of all of those guys, their nostrils wide open for two weeks now, their eyeballs cutting through the smoke over the ice like headlights, everybody diving and falling and stepping up a level in ability simply by trying. What had it won here in the end? What? Nothing. You had to cry a little bit. You couldn’t stop.
“I’ve seen a lot of hockey games,” Cheevers said. “I’ve seen guys try hard. But tonight …”
They were terrific, these Bruins. They were absolutely terrific. How many times did they win this game? How many times did they lose it? How high, how close had they climbed, not just in this series but in three years of bit-by-bit work against the Canadiens to reach this final point, this final ... disappointment? How hard would they have to work to get back here again? Could they ever get back here again?
"There will be nothing out of me," defenseman Brad Park said, motionless, naked in another corner, blank in the face. "There is nothing I can say. I feel too bad."
To be sure, the Bruins helped croak themselves. They had the 3-1 lead at the end of two periods. They had the 4-3 lead with only three minutes to go in the game. They were the ones who botched, who somehow wound up with two centers on the ice at one time, seven men altogether, to be whistled for a penalty and set up Guy Lafleur's tying goal with only 1:14 left. To be sure, they botched a few times, surrendering three power-play goals, but really ... REALLY! They somehow deserved better.
Gilbert, the born-again, found-again netminder was a story by himself. Sprawling, kicking, rolling on the ice, assaulted by 52 Canadiens shots — “The most shots I’ve seen since I was a peewee,” he said — what else could he have done? What else? There were some saves that he made that were total inspiration, total reflex, totally out of his or anyone else’s mind. What else could he do?
"For sure, we thought we had the game," he said. "We had it. The thing is that you never know. You never can say that. The game goes on and on, seems like forever, and these are the Canadiens. You never know."
Cashman, the captain with the bad back, the captain from out of traction. What more could he do? One goal to break the Bruins into the lead, 2-1, in the second period, a gentle tuck underneath Montreal goalie Ken Dryden’s pads from a half-inch away. Another goal, a looping floater, to make that lead 3-1 and send the true believers in this building into a high state of panic. What more could he do?
“Mind if we ask a few questions?” a French-Canadian television man asked.
"You can ask 'em," the captain replied, "but I'm sure I don't have the answers."
There was just something that doomed the Bruins here, something that doomed the Bruins the way it always dooms the Bruins here. There just was a force, a feeling, a wave that caught them again and whacked them back to where they had left. What was it?
There was just that one goal by rookie Mark Napier to start it all in the third period, the noise, the wind, the absolute sea of emotion that had every hand in the house clapping to one organ beat, the downright killer wave that swamped all. There was just that goal and then another by Guy Lapointe to tie the game, 3-3, and no matter what the Bruins did, they were doomed as they always are doomed here.
Rick Middleton's goal with four minutes left was just the final tease, the final prelude to heartbreak. The too-many-men-on-the-ice was the familiar part of the wave. The Lafleur goal was the next part. Mario Tremblay, chugging down the side, hustling the puck over to Yvon Lambert and the red light blinking and the crowd exploding were only the end.
What could you say? The Bruins played hard. No, the Bruins played harder. They played a terrific game, and they made this a terrific series.
They simply were one step slower. They simply were one foot shorter. They simply were playing another team that was better, no doubt about that, and had the perseverance to win in the end. The Bruins were better than the Canadiens, perhaps, in a long list of emotional ways, but in the end they were just not good enough.
How hard is that to take? For anyone?
"We were there," Gilbert said, "but we're only human. We can't stop everything."
"We had 'em once, we had 'em twice," center Peter McNab said. "That's the thing. We had 'em, and ... "
"You will feel better about this later," a man suggested. "You will sit down, perhaps, in the summer, and feel good about what you did. You played well. The pain will go away and you will be satisfied that you played well."
“Not this pain,” McNab said. “The pain just doesn’t go away from a thing like this. It’s a lifetime pain. Who’s to say we’ll ever come this close again? Who’s to say this team will be together? This was our chance. We had ‘em, but in the end we lost.”