The Philadelphia Flyers were the kings of the NHL in the early-to-mid 1970s, as the Broad Street Bullies won consecutive Stanley Cups in 1974-75. The Montreal Canadiens were the league’s most storied franchise, and on the cusp of another run of greatness. These two teams met in the 1976 Stanley Cup Finals, a series that might have been low on drama, but stands out in history as a changing-of-the-guard moment.
Philadelphia’s Bobby Clarke won the second of his two Hart Trophies—honoring the league’s MVP—in 1976, while forwards Reggie Leach and Bill Barger combined for over 100 goals. Leach would score 19 more goals in the postseason, and lead the Flyers to a tough seven-game series win over the Los Angeles Kings and then to a five-game win over the Boston Bruins, and earned a chance at a third straight Stanley Cup.
Montreal’s Ken Dryden had won his second Vezina Trophy, given to honor the league’s best goalie and he had several more ahead of him. Defenseman Larry Robinson and left-winger Steve Shutter were each in their twenties and ultimately headed for the Hall of Fame. And Guy Lafleur, only 24-years-old, was already well underway in a career that would see him end up as one of the NHL’s great goal scorers and a member of the Hall of Fame himself.
The Canadiens posted the best record in the NHL, swept Chicago in the quarterfinals, dispatched the New York Islanders in five games in the semis and set themselves up for a shot at the Cup. There were no conference distinctions in the NHL playoff bracket at this time, making a Finals battle between two Eastern teams a common occurrence.
A Montreal-Philadelphia battle promised drama. But just as there are times when sports delivers unexpected excitement, there are times when the promise of a thrill go by the wayside. That’s what happened here. Philadelphia’s championship run was out of gas, not helped by injury problems to their goalie Bernie Parent.
During the one-week period of May 9-16, Montreal won four straight games. They were all close—three decided by a single goal. And Leach’s offensive heroics—he scored 19 goals in the postseason—were enough to win him the Conn Smythe Trophy, symbolic of playoff MVP. But it was Montreal’s time, and even more specifically it was Lafleur’s time. He would score two game-winning goals and the Canadiens hoisted the Cup.
Montreal would do a lot more hoisting in the years to come. The 1976 Stanley Cup Finals were the first of four straight championship runs for the NHL’s proudest franchise. Conversely, the Flyers have only been back to the Finals twice and have yet to win the Cup in the ensuing years. The two great teams were ships passing in the night in 1976.