The 2022-23 Boston Bruins are the best team in hockey, enjoying what might end up being the greatest regular season in the 105-year history of the National Hockey League. They are favorites to win the Stanley Cup.
But more than in any other sport, the best team doesn’t always win in hockey.
Ask the 1970-71 Bruins, or any old-timers who followed that powerhouse all those years ago.
The Bobby Orr Bruins won the Cup in 1970 and ’72, but the best team of that golden era was the ’71 team. The ’71 Bruins won more games, scored more goals, and piled up more points than the Cup teams that bookended them.
And they never made it out of the first round of the playoffs. The mighty Bruins were beaten in seven games by the hated Montreal Canadiens and kid goalie Ken Dryden, who had only six games of NHL experience before the playoffs.
The ’71 Bruins averaged 5.12 goals per game and had 10 players with 20 or more goals. In an era when a 100-point season was like hitting 50 homers, the Bruins had four players who reached that mark: Phil Esposito, Orr, Johnny Bucyk, and Ken Hodge. All four were first-team All-NHL. Esposito won the Ross Trophy, and Orr won the Hart and Norris. The Bruins scored 108 goals more than the next-best team.
And then … they were gone. On April 18.
Let this be a lesson to the 2022-23 Bruins.
“We didn’t take it too seriously,” said goalie Gerry Cheevers, who started six of the seven games against Montreal. “I’d like to say there’s a bounce factor after winning in ’70, but we as players are 100 percent to blame for not winning.
“It was terrible. I’ll go to my grave feeling bad that we lost that series. It was so pathetic that you could bet your last dollar that we would win the Cup the next year.” (They did.)
Derek Sanderson had a career-best 29 goals for the ’71 Bruins. The other 20-plus goal scorers were Esposito, Orr, Bucyk, Hodge, Wayne Cashman, Eddie Westfall, Johnny McKenzie, Fred Stanfield, and Wayne Carleton. Cheevers and Eddie Johnston were the goalies and Tom Johnson was in his first season as head coach after Harry Sinden left because of a contract dispute.
“We just won everything that year,” recalled Sanderson. “It was a joke how good we were. Bobby was off the charts. We were not overconfident going into those playoffs. We were prepared. But it hurt that we didn’t have Harry Sinden. When we lost Harry, we lost that dressing room.
“Harry always gave me something to think about every night. He knew what the players needed. Tom Johnson was a great guy, but I remember when they asked about us playing Montreal, he said, ‘Well, we’re No. 1. They’ve got to beat us.’ And I said, ‘What?’
“You don’t go into a series with that in your mind. You restart in the playoffs. You rewrite the lines. What are our problems? Where are we going? What are our injuries? Harry Sinden covered all that and we lost him and that’s why we didn’t win in ’71.”
Another reason was Dryden. The Bruins had beaten Montreal five times in six regular-season games, but that was before Dryden came up from the American Hockey League to replace Rogie Vachon and Phil Myre. The Bruins had never faced Dryden, a 23-year-old standup goalie who’d starred at Cornell.
“We were playing better than we had been the year before, when we won the Cup,” Orr wrote in his autobiography. “I don’t know if we were overconfident going into that series. We were confident, but every team is.
“Great goalies give their team a kind of confidence that is hard to explain. And we could feel that Habs team was confident it could beat us, even though we’d handed them a couple of lopsided losses in the regular season.”
With Cheevers in the net, the Bruins won the opener at home, 3-1, but Johnson elected to go with Johnston in Game 2, and lost, 7-5. Montreal won it with six unanswered goals.
“We just couldn’t do anything right and Dryden couldn’t do anything wrong,” said Sanderson. “They completely knocked the wind out of us.”
The Habs took three of the final five games, including Game 7 on Garden ice, 4-2.
Let this be a lesson to David Pastrnak, Charlie McAvoy, Jake DeBrusk, and other high-flying young Bruins who are playing like a team that can’t lose a seven-game playoff series.
The regular season means less in hockey. Thirty-five President’s Trophies (best regular-season record) have been handed out since 1986, and only eight of those teams have gone on to win the Stanley Cup. The 2018-19 Tampa Bay Lightning, ’95-96 Detroit Red Wings, and ’92-93 Penguins also could tell you a thing or two about regular-season dominance melting during the playoffs.
“I love the Bruins this year,” said Sanderson. “They seem to like each other and that’s a magnet. Everything’s going well for them.
“It’s hard for them now because they’re not really playing for anything. Maybe they should go for the least amount of losses. Play for that record. Go for something. You’ve got to re-establish something and keep playing at your peak.”
Cheevers isn’t worried about today’s Bruins staging a repeat of ’71.
“I think they’re going to be OK,” said the former coach/goalie. “They understand. They have the most veteran team you’ve ever seen going into these playoffs. They are sharp and wise and they are well aware. I’m really not concerned about them because they know what’s going on.”