From the talk in Boston watering spots such as the 99 Club, the Iron Horse and the Tam O'Shanter, one would think the Bruins are playing like the Marblehead Midgets and that Bobby Orr, Phil Esposito, Derek Sanderson and friends ought to be arrested for impersonating hockey players. One of the city's fickle alarmists calls the Bruins "our new failure symbol for the winter." What? "We've got Jim Plunkett and the Patriots headed for the Super Bowl someday," the man explains, "and we've got the Celtics back on top again. So that leaves the Bruins. What's happened to the Bruins?"
Indeed, people are asking that very question all over town. They want to know why Orr doesn't rush the puck all night the way he did before he became a millionaire, why Esposito has not yet scored his 76 goals, why Sanderson has become tamer than Mickey Mouse and why all the Bruins are lobbying for the Lady Byng Trophy. Last week even the club's management got into the alarm act. "We're in trouble, deep trouble," said General Manager Milt Schmidt, "and we'd better snap out of it fast—or else."
Deep trouble? If deep trouble for the Bruins meant losing one of their last 18 games, if deep trouble meant being a tad out of first place with two games in hand; then, yes, the Bruins definitely were in deep trouble. "I'd love to have such trouble," said Buffalo's Punch Imlach, offering his condolences to Schmidt. Nevertheless, there is a feeling, even among the players, that there are a few things wrong with the Bruins, and that unless they resolve to correct them in the New Year their dreams of a Stanley Cup may vanish once again.
For one, the lordly Bruins treat most of their games against expansion teams with the casual disdain of an Ali fighting a Mathis. "If we do think like that in some games, we shouldn't be here," says Bobby Orr, "but I guess we do. It's mental, that's all. How can you possibly get yourself mentally motivated 78 times a year? No way. A lot of nights only three or four of our guys really are up for a game. Thank goodness we have so much talent on this team that any three or four players can carry us some nights." Twice recently this approach has backfired on the Bruins, however, as both Pittsburgh and Buffalo rallied from two-goal deficits to earn ties. "In keeping with the spirit of the Christmas season, my guys tried to be charitable," said Boston Coach Tom Johnson after last week's 4-4 tie with Buffalo. "Someday they'll learn—I hope."
What is worse, the image of the Bruins as a big, bad, bowl-'em-over team has gone into hibernation. "We don't even breathe on the other guys anymore," complains Milt Schmidt. It is the shameful truth that one night this season the Bruins played an entire game without taking a single penalty.
Sanderson, a man unspoiled by modesty in victory or defeat, blames himself for the Bruins' abrupt turn away from a more violent style of hockey. "I'm usually on the ice sometime during the first three minutes of play," he says, "and I can set the tempo for the entire night. If I start things off properly by fore-checking someone and knocking him down hard, then the other guys on the club take the cue and charge out looking for bodies to hit. But if I come out and flutter around and don't go near a soul, well, it becomes contagious. Isn't that right, Phil?"
Esposito shrugs. "Let's face it, Phil," Sanderson says. "I didn't start checking aggressively until a few games ago, did I? Be honest."
"O.K.," Esposito says, "you're right. You began to play your game again the night we took the Rangers in Boston."
Not coincidentally, that New York game was easily the best 60 minutes of hockey Boston has played all season. "There was never a question of being up or down," according to Orr. "We had to win, that's all." The Rangers had skated into Boston Garden with a five-point lead over the Bruins. "If they beat us at home," Esposito said, "we might not see them again until April." For added incentive, the Bruins were smarting over some printed remarks attributed to a few of the Rangers. "We learned, and they'll have to learn, that you don't win games by yapping," Esposito said. "It's best to zip the lip."
Boston dominated play from the opening faceoff. If the Bruins did not have the puck, they knocked down a Ranger or two and got it. When they had it, they fired away at Ed Giacomin, and later Gilles Villemure, like kids who had paid a dime for 10 minutes of target practice. The final score was 8-1, but the contest was not that close.
"My best game," Sanderson said. "I don't think I missed a check all night." Orr said, "When we hit and check like that, we always score a lot of goals—and always win the game. Why we don't do it all the time, I don't know." After the game, though, the Bruins declined to gloat. If they had not scored a rather fluky third goal, some said, the game would have been much closer. O.K., 7-1. "Reverse psychology," said Goal-tender Gerry Cheevers. "The Rangers just had an off night," Esposito said. "They're a fine hockey team."
But once the Rangers left town the Bruins immediately returned to their strangely docile ways, and last week they hardly hit a moving body while beating Philadelphia and tying Buffalo.
Besides the lack of hitting, there has been one other noticeable difference between this year's Bruins and the ones who clawed through the NHL the past few seasons. Orr, always an offensive-minded defenseman, has become so defense conscious these days that he rushes the puck with disturbing infrequency. Against Buffalo, for instance, he made exactly two rink-long dashes. Goalie Dave Dryden stymied him with two marvelous saves on the first rush, stopping the first shot and the rebound as well, but the goalpost stymied him on the second in the final minute of play, just when it appeared he would win the game for the Bruins. "I have not been ordered to cut down on my rushes," Orr said. "We have a lot of players who are quite capable of taking the puck up ice themselves. And they should do it."
Orr's strict attention to his defensive duties has made the Bruins a better defensive team; they are giving up fewer goals than last year. Still, some of the paying spectators do not appreciate the new Orr. "People think you're a bum because you don't rush the puck all the time," he says.
Spectators also have taunted Orr about the five-year, $1 million contract he signed before the start of this season. "They yell down and say I should give some of the money back," Orr says, laughing. "No, it doesn't bother me. It's maturity, I guess."
Despite his concentration on defense, enough of the old Orr has come through to keep him high in the scoring standings, while Esposito, as usual, leads the league, running near the pace he set a year ago when he had his record 76 goals, plus 76 assists.
All of which has left Hub fans badly confused. Peace? It's horrible.
Orr, the richest Bruin, seldom rushes now.
Sanderson, the hairiest, confesses that his untoward nonviolence has not helped the team.