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Bruins legend Terry O'Reilly praises Predators effort in Final

Former forward rooting for Nashville against Penguins entering Game 5

by Dave Stubbs @Dave_Stubbs / Columnist

PITTSBURGH -- Boston Bruins legend Terry O'Reilly celebrated his 66th birthday Wednesday by playing 90 minutes of pickup hockey about one hour north of Boston.

On Thursday, he'll settle in to watch Game 5 of the Stanley Cup Final (8 p.m. ET; NBC, CBC, SN, TVA Sports) between the defending-champion Pittsburgh Penguins and visiting Nashville Predators, cheering for the Predators. 

O'Reilly said he has been enjoying the Stanley Cup Playoffs, and that his injury-depleted Bruins "should be very proud" of their effort against the Ottawa Senators in the Eastern Conference First Round, all six games in Ottawa's 4-2 series win decided by one goal, four going into overtime.

He praised the opportunistic Penguins, calling them "a unique team of very highly talented individuals who seem to be able to rise to the occasion and score with minimal opportunities."

But O'Reilly's heart is with the Predators, the second wild-card entry from the Western Conference. They are in their first Stanley Cup Final and stand two wins from the championship.

"Give your fans a good effort, with everything you've got, which is what Nashville is doing, and you'll get the kind of reception that the Predators are getting now," he said of Nashville's wild embrace of the Predators. "I'd like to see Nashville win just because of their youth and spirit and because it's good for the game to spread it around."

Video: Nashville's centers step up in teammates absence

A dozen years ago, O'Reilly had both hips replaced during a lengthy operation in Birmingham, England. If the surgery did nothing to give him better wheels and shiftier moves on the rink, it did something better.

"It allowed me to get back to a lot of physical activities I'd given up, a complete change in lifestyle. And let's face it," he said with a laugh, "I never had speed or agility."

Yet for many fans in Boston, O'Reilly was the rugged heart and soul and the very embodiment of the Bruins, and remains so to this day.

The forward never won any skating contests during his 13-year NHL career, bulldozing his way through all 999 of his regular-season and playoff games from 1972-85 in a Bruins jersey. But he was an unholy terror, especially on Boston Garden ice.

O'Reilly ruled the boards, the corners and often the crease, and was adored for his Irish blood and lunch-pail work ethic in a blue-collar town that expected dirt beneath the fingernails of its heroes. His No. 24 was retired in 2002, as much a tribute to what he meant to his fans in Boston as to his team.

He was given 2,430 penalty minutes, including playoffs -- the equivalent of 40 ½ games, or virtually half a season. O'Reilly was so at home in the penalty box that when they demolished 70-year-old Boston Garden in 1998, they gave him the entire box, bolted onto a wheeled platform that today is at a dear friend's home, available anytime he wants to tow it to a charity appearance.

His penchant for penalties should not totally overshadow his skills. O'Reilly scored 204 goals and had 402 assists, including a 90-point season (29 goals, 61 assists) in 1977-78, and was plus-212 for his career.

The most memorable, even magical games of the 108 O'Reilly played in the postseason were April 19 and 21, 1980; they were Games 3 and 4 of the second round of against the New York Islanders, who would win the best-of-7 series in five games and go on to win their first of four consecutive championships.

The Bruins had lost the first two games of the series at Boston Garden, both in overtime, and O'Reilly knew he'd need to bring his best surly attitude to Game 3 on Long Island.

He would fight Islanders forward Clark Gillies twice and finally drop the gloves with forward Garry Howatt, which got him a game misconduct. With three minor penalties stirred in, O'Reilly earned 31 penalty minutes in the game, almost half of his playoff career high of 69 that season.

The Bruins lost 5-3 to leave them in a crater, facing elimination. O'Reilly, with a badly swollen eye that was nearly closed entirely, scored in Game 4 in overtime before the Islanders won Game 5 to close it out.

O'Reilly said he wasn't going to be allowed to play Game 4 unless he could see though "my pretty good shiner," so he spent the day in his hotel room icing his eye.

"Tom Songin, my teammate, a right winger who's my brother-in-law, kept coming down to my room every hour, knocking on the door to check my eye," O'Reilly said. "If I couldn't play, he would. It was a day-long process. A few hours before the game I got my eye open, just a little bit of a slit. Tom knocked on the door and he was a little disappointed when I told him I was playing."

Of that overtime goal, the third of the three he scored in playoff games, O'Reilly said all these years later with a laugh, "Tom says I ruined his career."

On Thursday, he'll tune in to Game 5 and see either Pittsburgh or Nashville move to within one win of the Stanley Cup.

"I don't know where exactly I'll watch it," he said. "But it will be someplace with a nice, big, flat-screen TV."

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