The Bruins have been here before: in St. Louis, with the Stanley Cup on the line.
The previous iteration was 49 years ago but culminated in arguably the most famous goal in NHL history, as Bobby Orr flew through the air in celebration.
This time, however, the situation is reversed. St. Louis has a chance to win the Cup on Sunday, going into Game 6 with a 3-2 lead over the Bruins.
Bobby Orr’s flight, the mid-air celebration of his overtime goal, is immortalized in bronze next to the TD Garden in Boston, and in the minds of many thanks to the iconic photo.
Orr may have been the lasting image of the 1970 finals, but he was one of many stars on that Bruins team, including Phil Esposito. We asked Esposito for his recollections of the series.
‘There was no way’
The way Esposito remembers it, St. Louis never had a chance. He might not be wrong either. That Bruins team was deep (like another team that seemed destined to win that Tampa Bay knows all too well).
“We had the best player in the world in Bobby,” Esposito said. “We had the best scorer in me. We had the best second line, if you want to call it that. Johnny Bucyk. Gerry Cheevers. Dallas Smith was one of the most underrated defensemen in my mind.”
The top five in points that playoffs were all Bruins (St. Louis had the next four spots). In the regular season, Orr led the league in points and Esposito in goals. Cheevers didn’t lead the league (Esposito’s brother Tony did), but was in the top 10 in save percentage and goals-against average.
“There was no way St. Louis was going to beat us,” Esposito said. “We were too (gosh darn) good.”
‘It was the way the expansion was'
Why didn’t St. Louis have a chance? Esposito summed it up: “Because they were an expansion team.”
Expansion rules weren’t like the Golden Knights’ draft two years ago, or even the Lightning’s 26 years ago. Vegas demonstrated what you can do given the chance to pick off good players buried in rosters. The Blues had no such opportunity.
“You couldn’t get the second goalie,” Esposito said. “You couldn’t get the fourth defenseman, or maybe the seventh forward or even the fifth forward. No chance. None.”
He liked the players on the Blues, respects players like Brett Hull, rapidly listing off six more. Esposito said they were good guys and great players, but overmatched as a team.
‘Far and away the guy’
That series will always be tied to Orr. There are not many championships as defined by a single moment as the image of Orr parallel to the ice.
Esposito had a “terrific series” as leading scorer with eight points in four games (two goals, six assists). He also led the playoffs in scoring with 13 goals and 14 assists. But it was Orr all the way.
“Bobby was far and away the guy,” Esposito said. “Even before he scored that goal. He was the guy.”
Sometimes an overtime goal can come from the least likely of sources, someone not known for scoring who capitalized on one of few chances in a tight game. This was not one of those times. Orr was the best player on the ice and everyone knew it.
‘Money for the summer’
There was more than pride on the line with the Cup back then. Esposito and his teammates had an extra motivator.
“It was about the Cup but it was about the money for the summer,” Esposito said.
Most players, including the stars, had to get a summer job in the offseason. Esposito worked at a steel plant in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, in the offseason until 1972, including after winning the Cup.
‘Almost broke my jaw’
As they got ready for overtime, Esposito looked at Derek Sanderson and said if he started, Sanderson wasn’t getting on the ice. Esposito played on the second line, while Sanderson was on the first with Orr. Sanderson retorted that the same was true if he started overtime.
The latter was right. And he made sure to remind Esposito.
Forty seconds into overtime, he assisted Orr’s goal and Esposito almost broke his jaw in celebration.
“I had my mouth open, I was screaming, I jumped over the bench and my foot got stuck,” Esposito said. “It was wonderful.
“I think I woke up and I was in Fort Lauderdale. I don’t know how I got there.”