The 1979 Boston Bruins were coming off consecutive trips to the Stanley Cup Finals, each time ending in a loss to the Montreal Canadiens. The Bruins were swept out of the Finals in ’77 and lost a competitive series in ’78. In 1979, they lost again to Montreal, this time in the semifinals and in one of the most gutwrenching endings in NHL history.
Boston didn’t have a superstar in the lineup. They relied on balance across the board. The Bruins ranked fourth in the league in goals scored, with a pair of 30-goal scorers in Rick Middleton and Peter McNab. The B’s contributions from Terry O’Reilly, Jean Ratelle and Wayne Cashman, who all produced 25-plus goals and 40-plus assists. The 38-year-old Ratelle provided veteran leadership and O’Reilly was an enforcer par excellence.
Goaltending was split between veteran Gerry Cheevers and young Gillies Gilbert. Cheevers got the bulk of the playing time in the regular season, but it was split more evenly during the playoffs. The Bruins ranked sixth in the NHL in goals allowed.
Boston started the season 6-1-2 (overtime was not played during the regular season) and then played Montreal to a 1-1 tie at home. The B’s got on a six-game winning streak that started in late November and extended to early December. In the latter part of December they won six in a row again, but on the 30th, went to Montreal and dropped a 6-1 decision. Boston was 24-6-7 when the calendar turned to the New Year.
The second half of January was tough, and the Bruins struggled on a 2-7-1 stretch and they lost again at Montreal. Boston went 13-10-6 the rest of the way and their final game with the Canadiens was another tie. The Bruins had gone 0-2-2 against their archrivals, but they were awfully good against everyone else. Boston’s 43-23-14 record won the Adams Division, was second-best in the East to Montreal and third-best in the league overall.
The NHL playoffs were then a 12-team bracket with open seeding, without regard to conference or division affiliation. After a first-round bye, Boston played the Pittsburgh Penguins in the quarterfinals. The Penguins were similar to the Bruins, well-balanced between offense and defense—7th and 8th in the NHL respectively—with a pair of 30-goal scorers in Greg Malone and Peter Lee.
Boston’s advantage was that if they and Pittsburgh were basically the same team, the Bruins were the better version of that team. They held serve at Boston Garden, with wins of 6-2 and 4-3, then closed it out in the Steel City with their defense, winning 2-1 and 4-1 to complete the sweep.
Now it was time for another battle with Montreal. The Canadiens had the league’s best defense, anchored by Vezina Trophy winner Ken Dryden. They had the second-best offense, keyed the great Guy Lafleuer, a former MVP who still ranked in the top three in both goals and assists. Other future Hall of Famers included forward Steve Shutt and defenseman Larry Robinson.
Boston dropped the first two games at Montreal’s fabled Bell Centre, losing 4-2 and 5-2. When the series went back to the Garden, the Bruins finally figured out how to beat their rival. The defense delivered in a 2-1 win that made it a series, and a 4-3 overtime triumph that tied it up two games apiece.
Each team won easily on home ice in Games 5 & 6, with Montreal winning 5-1 and Boston taking a 5-2 decision. It would all come to one game at Bell Centre.
With 2:34 to play, the Bruins led 4-3 and were on the threshold of one of the great victories in franchise history. Then they were whistled—correctly—for having too many men on the ice. They had gotten caught in a line change at the worst possible time. Lafleur, almost immediately, whistled a puck into the net to tie the game and the Canadiens won in overtime.
Crushing defeats in the city of Boston come with consequences. Head coach Don Cherry, already with a troubled relationship with the front office, was fired. It was a split from which no one benefited. Cherry coached one more unsuccessful year in Calgary and that was it. Now he’s a studio commentator for Hockey Night in Canada, where he’s both annoying, along with entertaining, in a sideshow kind of way.
The Bruins, having had great success under Cherry, only made it this far one time in the next eight seasons before breaking through and making the Finals in 1988. And Montreal? They won a fourth straight Stanley Cup. It was that kind of ending for the 1979 Boston Bruins.