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OTBH: Long Time Gone

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57 years, to be exact.

57 years is a long time to go between playoff matchups in a given sport--especially when both teams were still active in all of the intervening seasons. In hockey, a run like that can be in part chalked up to expansion, the creation of different divisions/conferences, and the vagaries of luck.

Still. 57 years. That's no small amount of time, especially given that for at least ten of those years, the league was made up of only 6 teams. And yet here we sit, on the precipice of a Stanley Cup Playoff series between two teams who haven't faced each other in the playoffs since 1957. I am of course referring to the upcoming epic battle between the Boston Bruins and the Detroit Red Wings, and the possibility of an old rivalry rekindled.

‘When we came here, we aimed for an even break,' Leo said. ‘We got that. It would have been nice to take two. Don't worry about us when we get ‘em in Boston.'-Leo LeBine, Bruins forward, 1957

(Note: I think a case can be made that the era of six teams was so long, and involved so few squads, that every other team was a natural rival. That will happen when you play 70 games a season against only 5 other teams. However, that original rivalry is so long ago now that few remember the feeling of it, the taste. I do think there's the potential, now, for some kind of "rivalry" emerging between Boston and Detroit, what with realignment and all. But it needs to be organic. This upcoming playoff series should tell us about the flavor of that potential rivalry, and so should the coming years of divisional play. Basically, stop trying to make fetch happen, NBC. You just gotta let these things percolate on their own terms.)

That semi-final series between the Bruins and Red Wings all those years ago should have been an easy one to predict: the Red Wings ended the season with 88 points and a record of 38-20-12 (best in the league), Gordie Howe won both the Art Ross and Hart Trophies that year, and the Red Wings had the League's top two scorers in Howe and Ted Lindsay. The gap wasn't overwhelmingly huge amongst the top teams--the Canadiens and Bruins ended with 82 and 80 points, respectively--but the Red Wings were the consensus pick for best team in the NHL during the 1956-1957 season. Even the Boston Globe proclaimed the Bruins the underdogs in the series, and that fans should probably pin their hopes on basketball, since "the Celts [are] Our Best Bets." (Boston Globe, March 25, 1957, p. 10)

Still, there were reasons to be hopeful: Milt Schmidt was about to win the coach of the year award, and Bruins rookie Larry Regan would secure the Calder. Including a last game loss to the Rangers, the Bruins went 4-1-2 in their last seven, beating the Wings twice during that period. The believers among the Boston faithful saw reasons for optimism, noting that while matching up against Howe and Lindsay was tough, the Bruins were no slouches in scoring either: the line of Don McKenney, Leo LaBine, and Real Chevrefils could put up points, and future Stanley Cup Playoffs star Fleming Mackell was kicking around, too.

The first game of the series, played on March 26, 1957 at the Olympia in Detroit, resulted in a resounding 3-1 victory for the boys from Boston. Jack Caffrey scored a clutch, game-tying goal, and suddenly the regular season champs didn't seem quite so formidable. Detroit, however, was not about to roll over after that opening defeat, responding with a 7-2 annihilation of the Bs in game 2. This result, much more than the previous one, fit the story media-types were spinning about Detroit's determination, will, and ability. And while the Bruins were going back to the friendly confines of the Garden for game 3, one could hardly blame them if they felt a bit rattled. Not so, apparently:

There were no signs of panic or pessimism among the Bruins this evening as they headed home for the resumption of their Stanley Cup battle with the Red Wings at the Garden...Leo LaBine summed up the viewpoint of the group. ‘When we came here, we aimed for an even break,' Leo said. ‘We got that. It would have been nice to take two. Don't worry about us when we get ‘em in Boston.'

(Boston Globe, March 30, 1957, p. 9)

LaBine wasn't just blowing smoke, as it turns out: The Bruins won the next three straight against Detroit, including one in the Olympia, beating them 4-3, 2-0, and 4-3 again to send Boston to the Stanley Cup Final against Montreal (where they lost, 4 games to 1, but that's another story for another time).

It's been said a billion, trillion times, but the Playoffs really are a new season. Regular season records go out the window, rivalries are created or solidified in ways much more meaningful than in the course of the previous 82 games. Anything can happen, and it often will--every game is a chance at redemption or an opportunity to make a statement or to prove to the fans and media just how wrong (or how right) they were. That Bruins team of 1957 was an example of just how true that adage is. Of course, many teams are better than their records suggest (and modern stats analysis can help demonstrate why exactly that might be), and sometimes upsets aren't quite as surprising at the standings would indicate. That promises to be true this year: the Red Wings are arguably not a standard 8-seed, and I would bet that the Bruins of 1957 weren't what their place in the standings indicated, either.

And so when the puck drops on Friday night between the Bruins and the Red Wings--ancient foes though they may be--anything goes. It's why hockey playoffs are the best in professional sports. One thing's for sure, however: I doubt we'll have to wait another 57 years for a chance to watch these two teams meet in the playoffs again.

Get ready, kids: the best show in town starts tonight.