Fifty-five years ago, when the Boston Bruins played their first game in Boston Garden before a capacity crowd, 4,000 additional fans left out in the snowbanks along Causeway Street broke down the doors to watch the hometown team lose to the Montreal Canadiens, 1-0. This year, as the Bruins commemorate their 60th year in the National Hockey League, hockey mania still thrives in Boston.
A look at the record tells why. Over the last 10 years only Montreal has won more regular season games than the Bruins. During this period, the club has undergone many changes, yet retained its winning image. In the early '70s, Boston won two Stanley Cups with a star-studded roster led by Bobby Orr and Phil Esposito. The current team is a young and mostly anonymous bunch that has again emerged as a viable Cup contender.
This year's club, which combines veterans like Rick Middleton and Mike Milbury with young forwards such as Barry Pederson, Tommy Fergus, and former Olympian Dave Silk, is off to its best start in five years. After two months the Bruins have lost only six games, and they currently have the lowest goals-against average in the league.
Pederson, one of the team's top scorers with 90 goals in two seasons, says, ''Teamwork is the main reason for our success. The opposition knows that when they play the Bruins, they have to key against all of us, not just two or three standouts.''
Milbury talked about the team's ability to perform under pressure. ''Perhaps it is an underdog outlook, but pressure is an advantage to us. When we are trailing, everyone comes together, rather than throwing in the towel.''
The sense of teamwork stands out when the Bruins are trying to kill a penalty or attempting to score a power-play goal with more skaters on the ice.
Pederson, who has netted quite a few goals in the latter situation, says, ''The power play has worked well this season because everybody passes well and point men Ray Bourque and Mike O'Connell have cannons from the blue line.''
Bourque, probably the best defense-man to wear the Bruins' black and gold since Orr, is a catalyst in the attack. ''Like Orr,'' says General Manager Harry Sinden, ''Ray controls a game from the blue line with his shot and skating.'' Unlike many defensemen, Bourque is adept at carrying the puck out of his zone. With his speed and playmaking skills, Bourque is able to set up fast breakouts by passing to Middleton and some of the other shifty forwards who like to slither around center ice looking for offensive openings.
The fast break, which is also utilized effectively by O'Connell and the other defensemen, has enabled the Bruins to roll up quite a few big scores this season. In a recent five-game stretch Boston outscored the opposition 37 to 12.
Cheevers says, ''In order for this team to win we must force the play in the opposition's end. When the team forechecks, plays an attacking game, we get things swinging in our favor.''
Another thing that has been swinging their way is the goaltending. Two years ago, this aspect of the game was Boston's Achilles' heel. But the acquisitions of Pete Peeters last year via a trade with the Philadelphia Flyers and free agent Doug Keans this year have made the Bruin goal about as secure as a medieval fortress.
Last year Peeters won 40 games, including eight shutouts, and put together a 32-game unbeaten streak. His 2.36 goals-against average earned him the Vezina Trophy as the league's best regular-season goalie. Cheevers, a goaltender with the Stanley Cup Bruins of a decade ago says, ''What can I say about Peeters that hasn't already been said? He plays the angles so well and reads the plays as they develop through center ice. He also serves as a third defenseman because of his puck-handling skills.''
But most important, of course, is the way Peeters controls the game with his solid and sometimes acrobatic goaltend-ing. However, when Pete was injured recently, Keans filled the void. Cheevers observes, ''The best way to test your backup goalie is to throw him into a pressure situation like this. In the six games Peeters was out we won four and tied one. I'd say he passed the test.''