- TOP PLAYERSOffensePABLO S. TORRE | August 20, 2012
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Johnny McKenzie, the pie-faced agitator of the Boston Bruins, clutched a glass of prune juice as if it were the head of Brad Park, a tough defenseman for the New York Rangers who has described McKenzie in unflattering terms. "I didn't bother to read his book but some of my friends did," McKenzie said. "They took it back—and got a full refund, too." Suddenly the prune juice disappeared with a gulp. "Let's face it, this series is not going to be one of those love-hate things. No way, believe me. There's no love between the Bruins and the Rangers. A lot of hate, maybe, but no love."
And so, at last, here it was in living black and blue—Boston playing New York for the Stanley Cup. Who could forget the last time they met for the cup? More precisely, who could remember? It was 1929, and both the Rangers and the stock market crashed that year. During the Second World War both teams collapsed, and they spent most of the succeeding years struggling to avoid last place. Now they were indisputably the two best teams in hockey: Boston No. 1, New York No. 2 and trying harder, and oh, what a lovely war the cup finals promised to be. The street guys from Boston against the Goody-Two-Shoes kids from New York. Nickels and dimes against Madison Avenue millions. As one New York advertising type said, "If the Rangers win the cup, we'll discover hockey. If the Bruins win, we'll rediscover baseball or something."
All season long the feisty Bruins had mugged the Rangers and stolen their candy money. "They beat us five straight games by the combined score of 24 to 4," reflected Ranger boss Emile Francis, "and they won all three games played in our building. You don't do that unless you have a strong hockey team." Like New York, though, Boston had some past to forget. "I hope we all learned a good lesson last year when Montreal upset us in the playoffs," said Bobby Orr. "Now we're beginning a new season."
Few championships in any sport could offer such contrasting teams. The Bruins frivolous and cocky, the Rangers quiet and serious. The Bruins practice when the mood sets in; the Rangers work six days a week and sometimes seven. The Bruins have a loose rapport with their coach, Tom Johnson, and usually call him Tommy; the Rangers stiffen at the sight or mention of Francis, and out of respect for his unchallenged authority they always call him Mister.
On the ice the Bruins have a marauding, one-punch-knockout style that emphasizes body contact and goal scoring at the expense of everything else. The Rangers, on the other hand, float like butterflies, try to avoid physical conflict and work harder to prevent goals than score them. Basically, the Bruins beat the Rangers all season (after New York's opening win) by repeatedly knocking them down in center ice and never letting them get across the blue line cleanly to set up the crisp, short passing game that devastated the other teams in the NHL. "If we had done that against the Rangers," says Montreal Coach Scotty Bowman, "we would have beaten them."
In addition to the muscular and spiritual differences, there was the superstar gap: Boston had Bobby Orr and Phil Esposito (see cover); New York had no one with comparable skills. All season when the Bruins got in trouble they gave the puck to Orr, the game's most dominant player, or Esposito, who scored nearly a goal a game. While the Rangers had several players with star quality, they still did not have the one man—the Orr, the Esposito—who could turn a game around. The best New York line—Jean Ratelle, Vic Hadfield and Rod Gilbert—could manage only two goals against Boston all year, both by Gilbert, and now the recently injured Ratelle was skating on a fourth line while Bobby Rousseau, no mauler, was between Rod and Vic. Park, the league's No. 2 defenseman after Orr and scorer of 24 goals, had been ineffective against the Bruins because players like McKenzie and Wayne Cashman kept getting him into fights.
As the Bruins prepared for Sunday's opener in the Boston Garden they were looser than one of Ted Williams' ties. The Rangers? Nobody knew what they were. Francis had closed the doors at all his practices, and afterward the players would run out the back and return to their hideaway commune in Long Beach. The team had taken to the mattresses, Godfather style. " Francis must be working up a new plan," McKenzie said mockingly. But Defenseman Don Awrey had a deeper thought. "The Rangers probably have one of their young kids dressed as No. 4 and another kid dressed as No. 7," he said. "The only problem is that there's only one Orr and only one Esposito." Well, two Espositos. Tony, the Chicago goalie, was the goat of last year's finals.
True to tradition, the Bruins' practices were about as secret as a family picnic. Friends, neighbors, relatives—even a few spies, maybe—sat around the Boston Garden and collected autographs, shook hands and snapped pictures while the Bruins leisurely went about their exercises. The dressing room, far from being out of bounds, resembled an airport terminal at rush hour.
Goaltender Gerry Cheevers sat in a corner on one afternoon, looking perplexed. Not about the Rangers, mind you. After all, he had scored four straight wins over them, including a shutout. "Is Riva Ridge for real?" Cheevers wanted to know, glancing up from the Daily Racing Form. Esposito slouched against a wall and complained that a photographer had insulted him. "Yeah, the guy said to me, 'Tony, would you mind....' That's all I had to hear. I told him to buzz off." Wayne Cashman, the meanest Bruin, was psyching himself for a return engagement with Gilbert. "No, I don't talk to Gilbert," Cashman said, "because he's French and I'd need an interpreter."
Orr was busy telling everyone that the Bruins would have to stop Walt Tkaczuk. "We saw a few of their games on television," Orr said, "and he was by far their best player." Derek Sanderson, who had missed the St. Louis semifinal series because of various ailments, including colitis, viruses and fatigue, figured Tkaczuk was a certainty for the best player award. And Boston a cinch for the cup. Said Derek: "Don't worry about a thing."