Esposito, with 16 goals in 12 games, Hodge with 10 and Cashman with five had thus far outscored 10 of the NHL's 16 teams, including the Rangers. Nevertheless, that fact depressed Sinden, now the Boston general manager. "People think we're a two-man and one-line team," Sinden said before the game, "and it scares me to think they may be right."
Sinden's fears were realized that night as the Rangers rudely routed the Bruins 7-3. New York's Larry Popein, a rookie coach fighting to save his job, assigned his strongman, Center Walter Tkaczuk, the job of neutralizing Esposito, and though Tkaczuk followed him everywhere except the Boston dressing room, Esposito managed to score two more goals—his 17th and 18th of the year. Orr got the final Boston goal with an assist from Esposito—did someone say two-man team?—but Boston never truly threatened New York's early lead.
Back in Boston, the Bruins and the Canadiens arrived at Logan Airport at just about the same time, but the Montreal players were smiling easily and kidding one another while the Boston players wore grumpy faces. While the Bruins were losing in New York, the Canadiens had taken over first place in the East by a meager point with a 4-1 victory over the Maple Leafs in Toronto. Yvan (Roadrunner) Cournoyer already had scored 10 goals, Jacques Lemaire's new hairpiece hadn't slowed him down and suddenly Montreal no longer seemed concerned about Goaltender Ken Dryden's defection to a law firm. Taking Dryden's place now was another product of a U.S. college—Wayne Thomas of the University of Wisconsin—and he had allowed only 11 goals in the last eight games. "He is playing for us the way Kenny always did," said Captain Henri Richard. "He keeps us in the game with four or five big saves early, then we beat them in the last 30 minutes. Really, it is no different from last year."
Thomas was Montreal's No. 3 goaltender last season. He had presumed that his future would lie with Detroit or Pittsburgh or even the World Hockey Association. He had played in only 10 games for the Canadiens, and while he had lost only once and achieved a fine 2.37 goals-against average ( Dryden's was 2.26), there was little chance Thomas would play in Montreal as long as Dryden was there. Then one night Thomas received a phone call from Dryden. Thomas' future suddenly acquired a stronger French accent, for Dryden revealed that he was going to retire.
Even so, Thomas was still Montreal's No. 3 goalie behind Michel Plasse and rookie Bunny Larocque, Plasse had a disastrous training camp, so Larocque opened the season in goal. After two impressive performances, Larocque played poorly in back-to-back losses to Toronto and Atlanta at the Forum. So Coach Scotty Bowman tried Thomas against the Rangers and has kept him in goal ever since. "It's strictly confidence," Thomas says. "Last year I knew that no matter how well I played, I'd go back to the bench when Dryden was ready. Now I know I can be the No. 1 goaltender on my own merit." Although Thomas had not dressed for any of Montreal's Stanley Cup games last spring, in Boston he displayed a cup ring. "I wear it with a certain amount of guilt," he said, laughing.
Over at the Garden, Derek Sanderson, the deposed center who now plays for the minor league Boston Braves, welcomed Esposito when he arrived for the game. "You guys sure were good in New York," he said. "I was watching from my bed, and I had to reach over and turn the television to Kojak for a little excitement. They ought to keep that tape and use it to show kids how not to play hockey." True. That night, however, the Bruins and the Canadiens played what Bobby Orr rightfully called "hockey the way it was meant to be played." Thomas and the equally new Boston goaltender, Gilles Gilbert, matched incredible save for incredible save. Both teams hit cleanly—and often. Esposito did his customary stints with Cashman and Hodge, performed on the power play, killed penalties and occasionally centered a fourth line for a pair of rookie wings. Orr was on the ice for at least three of every four minutes, but still the Bruins trailed 1-0 after two periods. Then Esposito and Orr turned it on.
Squaring off against Peter Mahovlich on a power play, Esposito won the face-off and shot the puck into the corner. He went into the boards, collected the puck, faked a pass to the covered Cashman in front of Thomas and then slid a pass to Johnny Bucyk, who was skating at Thomas on the left wing. Bucyk waited for Thomas to move and then deposited the puck between the goaltender's legs. Later, with the clock running out, Orr departed on one of his typical rink-long rushes. This time, though, he stopped against the right boards and flicked a wrist shot toward the net. Thomas reacted quickly, blocking the shot with his right glove, but the puck seemed to hang in midair for a second. Thomas swiped at it, but so did rookie Left Wing Dave Forbes. Forbes connected and drove the puck past Thomas for the goal that catapulted the Bruins back into first place.
Henri Richard, in Stanley Cup form histrionically, argued with passion that the goal was null and void because Forbes hit the puck with his stick raised above his shoulders. His protest was ignored, and as the race among hockey's top teams warmed up, this was clear: Boston would be null without Orr, void without Esposito.