From our recent special issue, we look at No. 1 on our list of the best teams in NHL history.
It might be difficult to believe, but the Montreal Canadiens actually had a losing record against the Boston Bruins in 1976-77. After one of those losses superstar Guy Lafleur said, “I will never accept losing. Never. The law of averages is bound to catch up with us, but that’s no excuse for a bad performance.”
And, that, in a nutshell, is what made the ’76-77 Canadiens the greatest collection of talent in the history of the game. The rest of the NHL provided Montreal such feeble competition that they had to fabricate it from within by challenging themselves to be better and more dominating every game. Practices, for the most part, were even more demanding than the games.
“When we scrimmaged, you were playing against the best players in the world,” recalled Peter Mahovlich, who lost his spot on the first line to Jacques Lemaire that season, despite posting a team-record 82 assists the year before. “You couldn’t help but get better because we had a bunch of guys who loved to be on the ice. Guy Lafleur loved to be on the ice. Steve Shutt loved to be on the ice. Larry Robinson loved to be on the ice and going at top speed. It was fun.”
The Canadiens opened that season with a 10-1 win over the Pittsburgh Penguins, finished it with a 2-1 overtime win over the Boston Bruins in Game 4 of the Stanley Cup final and in between they were the most electrifying, dominant and unstoppable team the NHL has ever seen. All told, they established 21 NHL records, including a 132-point performance that still stands as the league’s benchmark. Their goal differential of 216 is by far the best in NHL history, 40 ahead of the next-best mark, which was established by the Habs the following season.
They had nine players in the lineup who ultimately made their way to the Hockey Hall of Fame, along with coach Scotty Bowman and GM Sam Pollock. They became one of only two post-expansion teams (the 1970-71 Bruins were the other) to place four players – goalie Ken Dryden, defenseman Robinson, right winger Lafleur and left winger Shutt – on the first all-star team. The league might as well have held its awards ceremony at the Canadiens team banquet, since Lafleur won the Art Ross, Hart and Conn Smythe Trophies, Dryden and Michel Larocque the Vezina, Robinson the Norris and Bowman the Adams.
Had the Rocket Richard Trophy been in existence, Shutt would have taken it on the strength of a 60-goal season that established a record for left wingers at the time. The Selke Trophy was established the next season, when Bob Gainey won his first of four consecutive honors as the league’s best defensive forward.
When you consider Montreal’s dominance that season, you must look at it through the prism of a four-year run in which the Habs won four Stanley Cups and established themselves as arguably the most dominant dynasty in the history of the sport. In those four years, the Canadiens lost just 46 games. To put their 60-8-12 record in 1976-77 into perspective, they’re the only team in NHL history to play more than 60 games in a season and lose fewer than 10. In fact, prior to Montreal losing just 11 games the season before, the low-water mark for losses in a 60-plus game schedule was 13, by the 1950-51 Detroit Red Wings, who established the mark in 70 games.
But what made the Habs roster so impressive was that it was almost entirely homemade. With the exception of Mahovlich, every player on the roster was drafted or developed by Montreal. Dryden and Doug Jarvis were drafted by other teams, but were dealt to the Canadiens before their NHL careers even began.
And to trace the lineage of that team, you have to go back a few years prior to the 1970-71 season, when the Canadiens shocked the hockey world by stunning the powerhouse Bruins in the first round of the playoffs en route to the Stanley Cup. They did it with Dryden, a rookie goaltender who had originally been drafted by the Bruins in 1964. At the 1970 draft, Pollock traded Ernie Hicke to the California Golden Seals for a swap of first round picks and helped seal California’s fate as the last-place team by dealing Ralph Backstrom to the Los Angeles Kings at the deadline.
That allowed Pollock to draft Lafleur first overall, but then he took Murray Wilson 11th overall and Robinson in the No. 20 spot. With the 53rd overall selection, the Canadiens took Greg Hubick, whom they flipped to get the rights to Jarvis four years later. All of those parts, along with what was already a formidable lineup in its own right, combined to make the team a juggernaut.
And although it might seem like the Habs didn’t break a sweat that season, it wasn’t as though they threw on the pads and played shinny for 60 minutes. In fact, the Bruins defeated Montreal in each of their first three meetings that season before the Canadiens took the final two. Even though they played 86.5 percent of the time tied or in the lead, they trailed at one point in 21 of their 60 wins and in nine of their 12 ties. At one point in the campaign, they lost 7-2 to the St. Louis Blues and 7-3 to the Bruins in the space of five days.
But when the Canadiens won that season, they won big. They outscored their opponents by an average of almost 5-2 and 21 times that year they bested their opponent by five goals. Sixteen times the margin was six, nine times it was seven and four times they won by eight goals. And the scary thing about it was the Canadiens were so young. The only players on the roster who were older than 30 were Jimmy Roberts and Yvan Cournoyer, who was beginning to be plagued by back troubles that caused him to miss 20 games and the entire playoffs, and forced him into retirement a year later. Lafleur and Shutt were just 24, Robinson was 25, Gainey and Doug Risebrough were 22 and Mario Tremblay was just 19.
That youthful enthusiasm, more than anything, kept Montreal from becoming complacent. It also helped that practices were intense and competitive and that Bowman knew exactly what kind of mind games to play to keep the players on edge.
“It’s pretty simple,” Mahovlich said. “Scotty never allowed us to get bored. Everybody talks about all the talent we had. But one of the things Scotty did very well was he knew how to manipulate that talent to make sure that talent was ready to play every night.
“We always had two or three extra players around who could take your spot in the lineup and the team wouldn’t miss a beat. Even though we were winning all the time, even if you had bumps and bruises, you kept playing because you were scared to death of losing your spot in the lineup. When you go through the first half of the season and you’ve lost only four or five games, it’s the coach who creates the atmosphere where everybody is on pins and needles.”
If there was one downside to that season, it was the squad was so dominant it spelled the beginning of the end of Dryden’s career. He was 29 at that time and had won so much by such a great margin, that it was during that season Dryden began to contemplate new challenges in his life.
“This isn’t a complaint, but I didn’t enjoy last season very much,” Dryden said the next year. “We had a great team and a great record, but there were an inordinate number of games which we won without even a reasonable amount of difficulty. There were moments when we’d win a game and you’d go into the dressing room and there would be a certain amount of emptiness. Some guys would have to yell it up just to emphasize the fact we had won. “I’m happy we won as often as we did and lost only eight times. But I found myself spending increasing time thinking about what I want to do with my future.”
Perhaps it was a portent of things to come that the Canadiens’ only two playoff losses came to the New York Islanders that spring. It would be three seasons before the Islanders would usurp the Montreal dynasty with their first of four straight Stanley Cups.
As dominant as those teams were, however, they were not the 1976-77 Canadiens, the standard by which all other great teams in the NHL will continue to be measured.