The biggest losers
Like three teams before them, Bruins will carry the extra weight of this collapse into history
Former NHL players Denis Potvin and Pierre Larouche have been friends for decades. Naturally, they talk hockey. But they don’t talk about the 1975 playoff series between the Pittsburgh Penguins and New York Islanders.
“I certainly wouldn’t bring it up,’’ said Potvin. “It’s not a topic of conversation. It’s a respect thing.’’
As a defenseman for those Islanders, Potvin found himself on the right side of history. New York overcame a 0-3 deficit and advanced to the next round. Larouche and his Pittsburgh teammates, meanwhile, became forever linked to an epic collapse.
The Penguins once sat where the Bruins did Friday night. Stunned, embarrassed at how a playoff series slipped from their grasp. By now, Boston fans know the 2009-10 Bruins have etched their names alongside those of the 1975 Penguins, the 1942 Detroit Red Wings, and the 2004 Yankees as teams that choked after holding a 3-0 lead in a best-of-seven playoff series.
“It’s something you have to live with the rest of your life,’’ said Potvin. “Everybody is going to focus on the positive, but everybody knows the team that lost in a series like this. Everybody knows that it was the Pittsburgh Penguins that lost after leading, 3-0. That will never, never go away.
“Most athletes have learned to deal with the downside of the sport, but this exacerbates it because you’re in the record books for everybody to see forever.’’
Big losers, runners-up often fade away. But these Bruins have etched an unforgettable chapter in franchise history. And the careers of Zdeno Chara, Milan Lucic, Blake Wheeler, Tuukka Rask, Marc Savard, and their teammates forever will be connected with what transpired during the series.
Now the question is, how long does the loss linger in the minds of the players and the psyche of the franchise?
“There are some serious repercussions if you lose,’’ said former Islanders goalie Chico Resch. “Players say they can shrug it off. You can shrug off individual losses. But it’s been 35 years since we did it and they’re still talking about it in reference to a great comeback or a collapse.
“The year we did that, everybody was playing well. It was the best time to be a hockey player for me. The flip side of that is when you’re trying everything you can and it’s not working for you and you’re not getting the bounces, that’s the worst feeling in the world for an athlete. It paralyzes you.
“[Game 7’s] are huge for everybody on that ice.
“For Zdeno Chara, it will define a little bit of his captaincy. Marc Savard, Michael Ryder, Blake Wheeler, a lot of those wingers, the defense, this is going to define them individually.
“It isn’t just one game that people are going to remember. They’re going to say, ‘You lost four in a row. How can you say you were a strong team?’ That’s what you fight.’’
“There was definitely some complacency,’’ said Lucic.
When the Flyers scored their first goal, they saw a change in the Bruins’ disposition.
“We felt a little something in their steps,’’ said forward Danny Briere. “All of a sudden we started thinking they blew that series, the 3-0 lead. When we tied the game, we just realized that it is meant to be. You come back 0-3 in the series and 0-3 in the seventh game. You start thinking this is meant to be.’’
Former Red Sox pitching coach Dave Wallace had a similar feeling upon reaching Game 7 in the 2004 ALCS, with Boston having come back from an 0-3 deficit to square the series.
“For those of us who had been there the year before,’’ said Wallace, “it was like, ‘We’ve come this far. Maybe this is our time.’ You start to feel it.’’
Resch talked about the “unseen hand,’’ the importance of Lady Luck. More than in any other sport, bounces can determine a team’s fate in hockey. In Game 4, the rebound that landed on Simon Gagne’s stick for the overtime game-winner was a perfect example of what Resch said was “the puck finding the Flyers.’’
All epic series with history-making finishes have memorable momentum-changing plays, often some combination of fortune, skill, and wise leadership. Think Dave Roberts stealing second in Game 4 of the 2004 ALCS. Or the three near-misses by the Penguins early in Game 7 of the 1975 series. Pittsburgh hit the goal post twice, then Resch stopped a puck with his mask.
“Pittsburgh could easily have been up, 3-0, but [the three near-misses] was a much better scenario than us pounding them and not scoring,’’ said Resch. “People said, ‘Oh, they [the Penguins] have got to win. Look how they pounded them in the first.’
“But when they were done with that, you could see they threw their best stuff and it didn’t work.’’
While the Bruins actually took a 3-0 lead in the first period, it wasn’t long before the Flyers knew the “unseen hand’’ was on their side. But the Bruins were far from innocent bystanders in their collapse, though some might accuse them of being bystanders late in the game.
“Obviously, there’s going to be a bitter taste in your mouth for all this summer, but at some point you have to try and get over it,’’ said Lucic. “Who knows how long it’s going to take, but hopefully we can take some things out of this and learn a real valuable lesson — that we can’t take anything for granted at all.’’
The lessons the Bruins will draw from the loss remain to be seen, as does the length of time it will take the players and the franchise to recover. It may set them back, may haunt them longer than they can predict.
Potvin, Resch, and Islanders coach Al Arbour believe the team’s core players gained confidence in 1975 that helped them win four Stanley Cups in the early 1980s. Milt Schmidt was a member of the 1938-39 Bruins squad that held a 3-0 lead before the New York Rangers forced Game 7. The Bruins won Game 7 and went on to win the 1939 Stanley Cup. Schmidt thought the experience against the Rangers also helped the Bruins win the title in 1941.
And it’s clear that the 2004 Red Sox’ stunning comeback in the ALCS paved the way for their two World Series titles.
It shouldn’t be lost to history that the big comebacks of the Islanders, Flyers, and Red Sox required coaches who convinced players to take things one game, one inning, one shift at a time. Philadelphia coach Peter Laviolette took a timeout with his team trailing, 3-0, in Game 7 and emphasized the importance of scoring one goal, of not becoming overwhelmed by the deficit or the moment. It worked.
The day before Game 7 versus the Penguins, Arbour called his players together at practice for a pep talk.
“I told them that if anybody quits or wants to quit, you can go out the door and never come back,’’ said Arbour. “You’ve got to give your best every shift. And we’re going to play one shift at a time. After the one shift, somebody else goes on and does the same thing.
“That’s the first period. And we do that every shift and every period and we give our all. If you don’t like it, go on right now. I told them, ‘We can do it and we’re going to do it.’
“Nobody left. And nobody said anything, either.’’
The Bruins didn’t have much to say Friday night, for other reasons. They tried to put the loss in perspective without using the injuries to David Krejci and Marco Sturm as excuses. But it’s hard to get proper perspective inside the losing locker room after a team chokes in a playoff series.
A different view of the series did come from New England Sports Museum curator Dick Johnson, someone who has collected and chronicled much of the region’s sports history.
“The day after the regular season ended, if you were to ask 100 people how far the Bruins would go in the playoffs, you would have found maybe 2 percent who would have said, ‘Oh, they’ll be playing for the right to contend for the Stanley Cup. They’ll be playing in the Eastern Conference finals,’ ’’ said Johnson. “No one other than the 20 players, the coaching staff, and the executives of the team believed that could happen.’’
The way it ended, however, it seems not even the Bruins truly believed.
Shira Springer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.