Even before the St. Louis Blues brushed aside the San Jose Sharks on Tuesday in a 5-1 rout to reach the Stanley Cup Final, Boston fans were already referencing an iconic image.
The mere prospect of a Bruins-Blues matchup guaranteed that one of the NHL’s most famous moments would be trotted out as an inescapable historical reference.
The image was from 1970: Bobby Orr, having just scored the goal that gave Boston its first Cup in 29 years, soared through the air in a moment of pure joy.
But as much attention as Ray Lussier’s photograph (and story behind the photography) undoubtedly deserve ahead of a rematch in 2019, there’s more to acknowledge in a discussion of the 1970 Stanley Cup Final than just its final moment.
A case of the Stanley Cup Blues
In 1967, the NHL expanded. In fact, it doubled in size, going from six teams to 12 in total. An interesting league decision was made to simply create six teams in the newly formed Western Conference and hand one of them the possibility of playing for the Stanley Cup.
All of the original teams were left in the Eastern Conference to fight it out for one berth in the finals, while the expansion teams had the other spot in the championship.
It produced a string of results that were entirely predictable: the east dominated the west (leading to changes after the 1970 playoffs). But for the brief window of time in which it was simply new teams vs. old teams, the St. Louis Blues thrived in the Western Conference.
Led by a young coach named Scotty Bowman, the Blues won three consecutive Western Conference titles between 1968-1970. Yet for all the success against equal competition in the west, the Blues were no match for eastern elite.
In St. Louis’ three straight Stanley Cup Final appearances, the Blues went 0-12. And since the team hasn’t been back to the championship until 2019, the winless record still stands.
The St. Louis Blues are headed to the Stanley Cup Final for the first time since 1970.
They enter 0-12 all-time in Stanley Cup Final games, having been swept in 1968, 1969, & 1970.
On Jan. 3, the Blues had the fewest points in the NHL and were 300-1 to win the Stanley Cup. pic.twitter.com/TpfVzItYRe
— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) May 22, 2019
The 1970 Stanley Cup was an exclamation point on a Bruins revival.
Only four years before reaching the pinnacle of the NHL, the Bruins were in its basement. In Orr’s rookie season, the 18-year-old’s flashes of brilliance couldn’t cancel out the shortcomings elsewhere on the ice.
Boston won just 17 games in the 1966-1967 season. And despite an already rich history, the Bruins were in the midst of a prolonged championship drought.
The last Bruins Stanley Cup win before 1970 came in a 4-0 sweep of the Detroit Red Wings in 1941. The team had fallen on hard times.
Orr was the centerpiece of the rebuilding effort, but as his rookie year proved, more help was needed. The other famous move was made by general manager Milt Schmidt in 1967.
Schmidt, who as a player had helped the Bruins win their last title in ’41, sent forward Pit Martin, goaltender Jack Norris and defenseman Gilles Marotte to the Chicago Blackhawks in exchange for forwards Phil Esposito, Fred Stanfield and Ken Hodge.
The move was one of the most lopsided trades in NHL history. All three of the players the Bruins picked up featured prominently.
The end result was a powerhouse team that reached its crescendo in the Stanley Cup Final. The 29-year drought ended in emphatic — and given Orr’s winning goal, euphoric — circumstances.
The series-winner was Bobby Orr’s only goal.
An interesting footnote on Orr’s memorable goal was that it was actually his only score of the series.
The instant caveat to this fact is that the Bruins defenseman was still heavily involved in Boston’s dominance over St. Louis throughout the series. He also managed four assists, two of which were short-handed.
Orr’s ability to impose himself on a game without piling up individual stats (though he invariably did that as well) was part of his special status. Unlike many other star players, his dominance highlighted his teammates, rather than shunning them to the shadows.
It was a phenomenon that Canadiens goaltender Ken Dryden would succinctly describe as, “The profound exception.”
Dryden’s full explanation of Orr’s effect — taken from his book, “The Game,” — illustrated the impact Boston’s star, lining up as a defenseman, had even when not scoring himself:
While the speed of [Bobby] Hull, [Frank] Mahovlich, and [Guy] LaFleur, as forwards, often isolates them from teammates who cannot keep up, and robs them of the time necessary for effective combination play, as a defenseman, Orr gave his teammates a head start. With more ice in front of him, Orr could play full out, using all his special skills, never lose contact. From behind, he could shape the game.
He could see where it might go, then with no forward’s lanes holding him back, he could take it there, pushing teammates, chasing them, forcing a pace higher than many thought they could play, supporting them with passes, bursting ahead, leading them, forcing them to rise to his game, always working with them…From last place to a Stanley Cup in four years, it could only happen because, as catalyst and driving force, Orr brought the Bruins along with him.