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In important games against the New York Rangers, the Boston Bruins always follow Battle Plan No. 1. Intimidation, they call it, and it works something like this: in the first minutes of play the biggest, baddest Bruins charge, slash, punch, trip, batter, slam, crash, hook, high-stick or low-stick the Rangers into the boards or onto the ice. Sometimes the Bruins even employ a combination of blows, like a high stick and a left to the jaw, to get their message across. After suffering these atrocities for about 10 minutes the Rangers usually throw in the towel and adopt a pacifist posture as Bobby Orr leads the Bruins to a decisive victory. "I can't remember the last time we won a really big game against Boston," said New York Defenseman Brad Park last week.
But Park and the other Rangers were hardly uptight as they awaited Saturday night's wrestling match at the Boston Garden. "We know that if we beat the Bruins, we move eight points ahead of them and probably won't see them again until the playoffs," Park said, and he strolled around a hotel lobby greeting friends—and startling them with a buzzer concealed in his right hand. Center Pete Stemkowski played bellboy and passed out phone messages to teammates and innocent bystanders. "Great club we have here," Stemkowski said. "Even the goons like myself make $80,000." Mod Rod Gilbert graciously accepted compliments on his selection as one of the 10 sexiest athletes in the world. "Sure it's true," he said.
"I know I've said it in other years," Park commented, "but I really think this is the year we will win everything. Our injuries are behind us, I hope, and for the first time we have three solid lines." The Rangers floundered miserably between Thanksgiving and New Year's as their annual injury jinx—usually a March phenomenon—struck three months early. Park missed 20 games with knee damage. Defenseman Jim Neilson chipped a bone in his ankle, returned to the lineup, chipped the same bone again and missed 26 games. Gene Carr and Ted Irvine, left wings both, were injured in the same game in St. Louis and have missed a total of 43 contests so far. And top rookie Steve Vickers sat out 16 games with a battered knee. So far the Rangers have lost a league-high 131 man-games because of injuries.
Once Park and Vickers (who seems to have settled the left-wing problem on the line with Center Walt Tkaczuk and Right Wing Bill Fairbairn) returned to the action at the turn of the year, the Rangers immediately reversed their losing trend. They skated through January with an 11-1-1 record. Meanwhile, the Bruins slushed through the month with a terrible 5-7-1 and dropped from first place to third, where they were closer to fifth-place Detroit in the NHL East than first-place Montreal.
In Boston there is a natural tendency to attribute the highs and lows of the Bruins to the fluctuations of Orr's performances. Weakened by flu for more than two weeks and slowed by his injured knees, Orr obviously was not a commanding player during Boston's slide from first place, but the Bruins have larger problems than Orr's knees. For one thing their goaltending is embarrassingly weak. The Bruins are saying privately that unless Managing Director Harry Sinden obtains a first-rate goalie to work alongside beleaguered Eddie Johnston there certainly will be no Stanley Cup in Boston this May. "I'm afraid, though, that we won't be able to get a goalie," Sinden says. "When I talk to other clubs I get the feeling that they think we weren't nice to them on our way up, and that now they're not going to be nice to us on our way down."
Along with poor goaltending, the Boston forwards have not helped matters with their refusal to forecheck and backcheck with diligence, and the defensemen seem unable to get the puck out of their zone with any regularity. Normally a casual, carefree group that has scorned such formalities as meetings, the Bruins have been locking the dressing-room doors every other day in an attempt to resolve their problems. "But meetings don't accomplish anything unless you work on the ice—and we're not working," said Coach Tom Johnson. "What we need is what Gerry Cheevers gave us in goal last year. He played 33 straight games without a loss." Cheevers defected to the World Hockey Association during the summer.
Both Johnson and Sinden would like Orr to alter his style slightly for the rest of the season. "Let's face it," Johnson said. "We put too much pressure on him, and he can't always be super-sensational. We rely on him too much. But he could stand back there on defense and control the game that way instead of rushing the puck himself." Sinden added, "We'd like Bobby to be more conservative for a while, but he is a victim of habit, he has played the game one way and it's difficult to change him now. He could sit back there and run the game the way Doug Harvey did for Montreal. In fact, he would out-Harvey Harvey."
Orr recognizes the problem. "I'm just not thinking well," he said. "I'm making too many mistakes. If they say I've lost some of my speed, well, maybe I have. Maybe I will have to change my style of play a little." Park, who must rank just behind Orr in any poll of the NHL's best defensemen, noticed the change in Orr's skating ability when the Rangers beat the Bruins 4-2 a fortnight ago in New York. "Last year when he hit our blue line he was still accelerating," Park said, "but in that game he was just moving regularly when he reached the line. What that means is that we—the defensemen—can angle Orr against the boards because he does not have that spurt to go around us. Then again, maybe that was just one game."
Through all the misery Sinden has retained one wild card: mouthy millionaire Derek Sanderson, who drove his burgundy Rolls-Royce into Boston last week, deposited his $1 million severance check from the World Hockey Association and then joined the Bruins' local farm team for workouts. If Sinden signs Sanderson, he could conceivably trade him for an established goaltender. Sanderson, however, insists that he will not sign with the Bruins unless his contract includes a no-trade agreement. There also is a sizable dollar gap in the negotiations.
"What Derek wants [$200,000] is a fortune by our standards but nothing by his," Sinden said. And Sanderson may not be in condition to play for at least another month. He labored through workouts and afterward headed for the lavatory to vomit. "I spent too much time relaxing in Jamaica," he said, sounding almost apologetic. Otherwise he has not changed. He showed up one day with $15 and had to borrow money to fill the gas tank of his Rolls.