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OTBH: Most Dangerous Lead in Hockey

"I think I'm paranoid."

Gosh Pettinger (he of the greatest name ever), Mildt Schmidt, and Bill Cowley
Gosh Pettinger (he of the greatest name ever), Mildt Schmidt, and Bill Cowley
Boston Globe

You know what they say: the 3-0 series lead is the most dangerous one in playoff hockey.

What's that now? No one actually says that? You clearly haven't met many pre-2011-Cup Boston hockey fans, then. Or fans of the late 1930s-era Bruins, for that matter, who also watched while their team give up that same mammoth series lead. It's possible there's a bit of history to Bruins fans' current state of caution and/or paranoia.

As you have no doubt seen mentioned once or twice or 17 million times now, this situation -- the Bruins being up 3-0 in a series against the New York Rangers -- hasn't happened since 1939. The current matchup hasn't gone the way many predicted it would; pundits and twitter-ers and yours truly all foresaw a tough, grinding series with a bunch of overtimes and going the full seven games. While there have been two one-goal games this far -- game 1 and last night's game 3 -- and one game decided in OT, the series has felt more and more lopsided in favor of the Bruins as it's gone on.

Much the same could be said, however, of the last time the Bruins found themselves in this exact situation against the Rangers, during that aforementioned series of 1939. That one saw the Rangers take the Bruins to OT in games 1 and 2 before eventually losing, but then the B's just creamed the Rangers in game 3, winning by a score of 4-1 . The Bruins were on a roll, and series victory seemed assured at that point, based on history and logic and the laws of probability.

These things rarely go quite the way you expect, however (*coughLeafscough*). If by game 3 in 1939 the Bruins seemed to have the series firmly in hand, that wasn't necessarily the case at the start of the series. The tightly played game 1 was one for the ages -- a triple overtime affair that lasted a whopping 119 minutes and 25 seconds. Playoff hockey, folks! Rookie Mel Hill ended that game for the Bruins, then played hero again in the overtime period of game 2, breaking a 2-2 deadlock and giving the Bruins a (commanding?) 2-0 series lead.

Making matters worse for the Rangers, two veteran members of their squad were ruled out going into game 3. It was a desperate situation for the New York team, and "now or never" was the feeling among players, coaches, and reporters on both sides of the series::

If they [the Rangers] should lose the third game, there's every reason to believe that they wouldn't be too tough in the fourth one in New York Tuesday. Should they win tonight, however, the series might well go the limit.

Win, they did not, as the Bruins handed them a defeat in regulation for the first time in the series. Milt Schmidt had two goals, and goalie Frank Brismek effectively stopped any momentum the Rangers managed to build during the game. The Bruins, it could safely be said, were dominating the series -- they needed only one more win to advance and expectation everywhere was that they would get one easily in game 4: as Victor Jones observed, "hardly any one of the new record crowd of 16,981 which witnessed their latest triumph believes that the B's can be beaten."

Apparently, whatever wood fans in 1939 knocked on after that ballsy statement was actually fake wood paneling or something, because the Bruins did not in fact win the next game in New York. Nor did they win the one after that. Or the one after that. The games remained close -- the Rangers won by 2-1, 2-1 (OT) and 3-1 over the course of those three contests -- but by the end of game 6 it was clear that something unprecedented was happening. No hockey team in the history of the NHL had ever forced a game 7 after losing the first 3 games of a series, and yet the Rangers had managed to do just that.

The Bruins reporters of the era were noticeably subdued about this third loss. The reporting on the game was stoic -- laconic, even. It was done with the air of finality, as if destiny had firmly landed on the side of the Rangers in this series, a series that should have ended 2 games before.

There wasn't much time to dwell or bemoan lost chances, though, as game 7 was played the night following the Ranger's win in game 6. Nothing about the game was ever going to be easy -- the Rangers had all the momentum and the confidence, while the Bruins looked to throw off the yoke of blowing a 3-0 series lead -- and easy, it wasn't. Like game 1, this one went to three overtime periods, and ended up running for 108 minutes before Bruins OT hero Mel Hill took a feed from Bill Cowley and scored the goal that would send the Bruins on to the Stanley Cup final. Jones describes the end of the game better than I ever could:

The scene following HIll's goal last night almost beggars description. Ten-inch salutes were exploding all over the ice. Hill was torn almost limb from limb by his mates. The crowd was frantic, littering the ice with hats, coats, umbrellas and everything they could throw. Fans were dancing in the aisles, kissing each other, whooping like Indians at the release from their long pent-up emotions, with sheer relief from the agony of putting their hearts through a ringer for four solid hours.

Gross stereotypes aside, Jones' description captures the feeling of the night perfectly. It's a feeling many of us can relate to, having experienced a similar sense of elation only a week and a half ago, when the Bruins managed a comeback in the most spectacular fashion imaginable.

Of course, that comeback came on the heels of the Bruins blowing a (commanding?) 3-1 series lead. This current squad, like the one in 1939, managed to rally themselves in time to win a series they had the chance to close out several games before. The 2010 team, on the other hand -- well. We all know that story.

And now we find ourselves here again, the Bruins in the semi-finals with a god-I-hate-that-word-commanding series lead. Echoes of the past (both recent and more distant) haunt Bruins fans, never mind that the most recent 3-0 series lead held by the B's was in 2011, and resulted in a sweep of the same Flyers who had made the Bruins pay so dearly the year before. Nonetheless, the similarities between this Boston-New York series and the one in 1939 are a little -- unsettling. I, for one, am counting no chickens until they're hatched. This series, like that of 1939, is a long way from over.

Back then, of course, though it may have caused a fanbase-wide case of heartburn, the Bruins did pull out the win.

And then -- well, then the Bruins won the Cup. The rest, as they say, is history.