For most franchises, two consecutive years of missing the Stanley Cup Finals wouldn’t even register on the radar, much less be cause for alarm. But for the Montreal Canadiens, the most decorated franchise in NHL history, the two title-less years that followed the 1973 Stanley Cup, were an interminable drought. The 1976 Montreal Canadiens got back on top and in the process won a historic Stanley Cup Finals and began a new dynasty.
Montreal did everything well, but their calling card was the best defense in the league. Ken Dryden won the Vezina Trophy, as the NHL’s top goaltender, with a 2.03 goals-against (GAA) average.
Offensively, the Canadiens weren’t far behind the pace they set on defense, ranking fourth in goals scored. The great Guy Lafleur ranked second in the NHL in goals scored (56), third in assists (61) and it added up to making him the total points leader and a first-team All-Star at forward. Another Guy–Guy Lapointe in this case, dished 47 assists and was a 2nd-team All-Star.
Montreal had still more firepower in left winger Steve Shutt, with his 45-goal season. Center Pete Mahovlich and right winger Yvan Courmoyer were great passers, with 71 assists apiece, and both lit the lamp 30-plus times to boot.
This kind of depth led the Canadiens to the best record in the league, 58-11-1. They were the top seed in a 12-team playoff bracket where conference affiliation didn’t matter. It was simply bracketed 1 thru 12. After enjoying their first-round bye, Montreal got the playoffs started with a series against the Chicago Blackhawks.
Chicago was barely over .500, at 32-30-18, but they had an excellent goaltender in Tony Esposito. The problem was, they lacked offensive punch. The best Blackhawk scorer, Pit Martin, would have been the sixth-best player in the Montreal lineup. They were no match for Dryden, who spun a 4-0 shutout in Game 1 and then held Chicago to a goal per game the rest of the way.
Esposito performed admirably, but he couldn’t hold off the tide that Montreal brought, as they won Games 2 thru 4 by scores of 3-1, 2-1 and 4-1 to complete the sweep.
The Canadiens prepared to face the New York Islanders in the semi-finals. The Isles had a core of young talent that would eventually become a dynasty of their own in the early 1980s. Denis Potvin, a 22-year-old defenseman, was a 1st-team All-Star. Bryan Trottier, 19-years-old, joined Potvin as a 30-goal scorer. Clark Gillies was another kid, age 21, and would be a part of the future dynasty.
What New York didn’t do well, at least at this stage of their development, was defend. Goaltender Glenn Resch was good, getting 2nd-team All-Star status behind Dryden. But attack any goalie often enough and some pucks will get through, and the Isles still ranked just 16th in defense.
The series was competitive, but Montreal consistently found the way to win close games. They took Games 1 thru 3 by scores of 3-2, 4-3 and 3-2, before their postseason win streak finally ended with a 5-2 loss in Game 4. The Canadiens wrapped up the series with a 5-2 victory of their own in Game 5.
Now it was time for a great showdown in the Finals. The Philadelphia Flyers were the two-time defending Stanley Cup champions and took their place in hockey lore as “The Broad Street Bullies”, for their ultra-physical play.
That shouldn’t obscure the talent the Flyers had though. Center Bobby Clarke had 89 assists to go with his 30 goals and he won the MVP award. Reggie Leach led all scorers with his 61 goals. Bill Barber lit the lamp 50 times and joined Lafleur as the All-Star forwards. Philly ranked 2nd in the NHL in scoring.
But while Philadelphia had a better offense, Montreal was a more complete team. The Flyers were only 17th on defense. No matter the sport, the deeper you get into the postseason, the more likely it is that the better defensive team will prevail. And Dryden was the difference.
Montreal held Philly to nine goals in four games and again won the close games, taking the first three by counts of 4-3, 2-1 and 3-2. A 5-3 victory in Game 4 sealed the Stanley Cup.
The Conn Smythe Award, given to the MVP of the entire postseason, went to Leach for his 19 goals and 5 assists. That’s a spectacular performance and not to be begrudged, although we should note that Dryden elevated his already superb game in the playoffs, with a 1.92 GAA. This in spite of the fact that 9 of the 13 games were played against teams with top-three offenses. And his team ultimately won the Stanley Cup. I think he deserved the award.
Other heroes included Lafleur and Shutt, who scored seven goals apiece. It was the second Stanley Cup for head coach Scotty Bowman, who had been the coach of the 1973 team.
And a new era of Montreal Canadiens ascendancy was at hand. The 1976 Stanley Cup Finals proved to be a changing-of-the-guard moment, as Montreal took the baton from Philly and went ahead and ran with it. The Canadiens would dominate the latter part of the 1970s, winning four straight Stanley Cups.