"'Playoffs,' he said as though he were tasting the word. 'There's nothing more important, nothing bigger, nothing better. What do they mean to me, to us? The world.'"
--Ken Hodge to John Ahern, May 31st, 1974
Hey, remember yesterday here at OTBH? 1933. The Semi-finals of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. One of the most epic series in the Bruins' long history. The first playoff matchup between two rivals who would meet again and again -- twelve more times, in fact.
If that first meeting was grandiose in scale and storyline, what then of the most recent clash? Before we collectively embarked on this 39 year playoff matchup drought, the Bruins and Maple Leafs played post-season contest number 13 in the spring of 1974, 41 years after that glorious 1933 series.
Much had changed, obviously -- both clubs had seen their ups and downs, been champions and languished at the bottom of the standings. The Bruins were icing a squad with some dudes you may have heard of: Bucyk. Esposito. O'Reilly. Orr. They were coming off of a 113 point season and were but two years removed from winning the Stanley Cup.
Toronto, on the other hand, had a different set of expectations going into the series. The Leafs' season that year has some similarities to this current, lockout-shortened one, in that their success took people a bit by surprise. The Globe's preview of Toronto's 1974 team was entitled simply: "The Leafs: Mind-boggling resurgence, surely."
Actually the whole preview reads like something out of today's media coverage. For example:
In its way, the transformation has been a modest miracle. Only a year ago the Leafs were far out of playoff contention, and their polite fans were just keeping a stiff upper lip and privately sighing for the departed glories of Primeau, Jackson and Conacher...The quest for whatever lies beyond respectability begins right here in our Garden next week when the revived Leafs present the first challenge to Boston's awesome Bruins in Stanley Cup Series ‘A'.
--Tom Fitzgerald, Boston Globe, March 31 1974
Sounds kind of familiar, though in the age of blogging/twitter, I would say that maybe the sighing on the part of Leafs fans has been a bit less, um. Private. Nonetheless, the Leafs of 1974 were a happy surprise, and one the Bruins could not afford to take lightly. The Leafs had actually beat the Bs twice during the regular season -- once at home, and once in Toronto. No one was willing to quite predict an upset, but pundits agreed that the series should be a tough one on both sides.
And tough it was, right from Game 1. Much like that 1933 series, this one began with a matchup that needed overtime to settle it. When the Bruins finally won -- off a rebound slammed home by Gregg Sheppard -- it wasn't so much because they dominated the contest, but because (as so often is the case in sports) eventually one team was going to get a bounce. As John Ahern wrote the following day:
The Bruins were lucky. Toronto also was lucky. Last night it was a game of inches and lucky bounces and the best bounce of the night, the Bruins agree, was that rebound that came right to Shep's stick. Another definition of playoff hockey.
--John Ahern, The Boston Globe, Aprill 11 1974
The next two games weren't quite as tightly played -- the Bruins won both by scores of 6 to 3 -- but game 4 saw a return to the agony/ecstasy of overtime playoff hockey. The teams went into the extra period tied at 3 apiece with goals from O'Reilly, Hodge, and Orr for Boston, and Ellis, Ullman, and Hammarstrom for the Leafs. The third Toronto goal came with only 1:17 left on the clock, and reignited Toronto's hope to stay in the series.
It took less than 2 minutes into overtime for Ken Hodge -- for whom the playoffs were everything, remember -- to crush that hope, as he scored his second of the game to send the Bruins on to the next round. The goal was a weird one; apparently no one on the ice saw it go in, including Hodge and Toronto netminder Doug Favell. It was a good goal, though, and as such ended playoff contest number 13 between these two teams. The Bruins had gone into the series as the favorites, but Toronto wasn't about to go down without a fight (starting to sound like a trend, eh?). Writing this series off as a sweep is the easiest story to tell, but the real story is how hard Boston had to work for those four wins, and how (unexpectedly) tenacious the Maple Leafs proved to be. It's the story of the playoffs, my friends.
"The only trouble is," Tom Fitzgerald wrote on March 31, 1974, "there is seldom a completely sensible and logical pattern to the Stanley Cup competition." True enough, but I wouldn't call it a ‘trouble,' and I bet Ken Hodge wouldn't either -- it's the best thing in sports. Any given night, any given series. Knowing how the Bruins-Leafs playoff contest of 1974 ended makes for an entertaining story, but it doesn't help us know how this one will end -- hell, knowing how this year's regular season matchups went can only tell us so much.
The Leafs of 1974 were counting on that unpredictability -- it didn't work out in their favor then, and it may not this time around, either. In either case, the most glorious thing in sports is about to happen: a hard fought contest between two worthy (and olde tymey) opponents. It all starts over again tonight.
To Bruins fans and Leafs fans alike -- Happy fucking playoffs!