The 1978 Montreal Canadiens might not have been the best team of the modern era, the way they had been in 1977. But the ’78 edition of the Canadiens was awfully close and they continued their dynasty run of the latter half of the 1970s, winning a third straight Stanley Cup.
Just as they had in 1977, this Montreal team was the best in the league both scoring goals and preventing them. Just as they had in 1977, they had the MVP and the Vezina Trophy winner, in Guy Lafleur and Ken Dryden. Just as they had in 1977, they were the #1 seed in the playoffs. The only difference was that the ’78 team came up three points shy of the record they had set in 1977.
Lafleur’s 60 goals were the best in the NHL, and his 72 assists were second. Dryden’s 2.05 goals-against-average (GAA) was easily the league’s best. Steve Shutt scored 49 goals, third-best in the league and he, along with defenseman Larry Robinson, were 2nd-team All-Star selections. Jacques Lemaire was fourth in points, thanks to 61 assists. All five of these players–Lafleur, Dryden, Shutt, Robinson and Lemaire–were eventually inducted into the Hall of Fame. Yes, this team could play a little.
The NHL had 18 teams in the league at this time and 12 made the playoffs. The format simply seeded the teams 1 thru 12 without regard to conference structure. Montreal was one of the four teams with byes, avoiding the best-of-three preliminary round.
They drew the Detroit Red Wings when it came time for the quarterfinals and the traditional best-of-seven format. The Red Wings had a good team defense, ranking 7th in the league in goals allowed, but did not have a goaltender who could lift an entire team, and their offensive capacity was light-years behind Montreal’s. The Canadiens won the series in five games, including an 8-0 rout in Game 4.
Montreal then got a break. The New York Islanders were an up-and-coming team that had met the Canadiens in the semi-finals each of the previous two years and were the only team to win any games against Montreal, stretching the great 1977 team to six games. New York had added a brilliant young scorer in Mike Bossy, and a third straight meeting in the semis would have been a good one. But the Islanders got upset by the Toronto Maple Leafs.
I don’t want to overstate how big of a break this was–Montreal still would have been favored over the Isles, and the Leafs had some talent–Darryl Sitter scored 45 goals and was a second-team All-Star, as was defenseman Borje Salming. The Leafs were still the sixth-best team in the NHL. But they didn’t have a chance in this series and Montreal swept Toronto four straight, with three victories by two-goal margins and a 6-1 domination in Game 3.
The Boston Bruins were the last hurdle left in the Stanley Cup Finals. The B’s were well-balanced, and they had one of the best defensemen in the game, with Brad Park. Peter McNab led the third-best offense in the NHL and Terry O’Reilly was an enforcer par excellence. But there was a huge disparity in goaltending. Gerry Cheevers was a nice, competent netminder, but Dryden was in a world several layers above that.
Montreal took the first two games at home 4-1 and 3-2, but they needed overtime to take Game 2, with a Lafleur goal winning it. Then the Canadiens started to show some cracks in the dynasty for the first time, losing both Games 3 & 4 at the old Boston Garden. They were shutout 4-0 in the third game and trailed 3-2 in the closing minute of Game 4 when a Lafleur goal with 0:33 left bought them a reprieve. But the Bruins still won in overtime.
Even though Montreal had lost twice to the Islanders in 1977, the series had never been tied this deep at any point in the previous two years. Dryden recovered and took over Games 5 & 6, both of them 4-1 wins that brought home another Stanley Cup.
Robinson’s passing was exquisite throughout the postseason. His two assists in the Game 6 clincher were part of 17 for the entire playoffs and it won him the Conn Smythe Award, as MVP of the postseason. I’m always partial to Dryden for this award, as he consistently elevated his game in the playoffs. Consider that’s elevating off a standard that’s already the best in the league and doing it exclusively against the best teams in hockey. Dryden’s postseason GAA was 1.89. Lafleur scored 10 goals and had 11 assists.
You could see the gap between Montreal and the rest of the NHL closing a bit, but there was still plenty of cushion. The Canadiens had a third straight Cup and looking ahead, they had one more title run left in them.