The 1978 Boston Bruins were coming off a year where they reached the Stanley Cup Finals, but were pounded decisively by their archrival, the Montreal Canadiens. The Bruins came back for more in 1978, and they did get a little bit more…but in the end it wasn’t quite enough.
Boston’s 1978 team was one of the most balanced teams in the history of the NHL, becoming the first team to have 11 players score 20-plus goals. The leader was Peter McNab with 41, while Terry O’Reilly was the best all-around offensive threat, with 61 assists and a team-leading 90 points. O’Reilly was also an enforcer par excellence, and could have easily gotten a job as a capo in the Boston Irish mob if the hockey thing hadn’t worked out.
Jean Ratelle and defenseman Brad Park were also solid assist men, and physical winger Wayne Cashman was the team captain. The Bruins balance translated itself into consistency. They never lost more than two consecutive games, only did that on three occasions and two of them happened in the season’s first 20 games. Their record hit 48-14-9 on March 23, and the B’s coasted home to an Adams Division title, beating out Buffalo and Toronto, along with the Cleveland Barons (who through a series of mergers & moves are now a part of today’s Dallas Stars).
After a first-round bye, the Bruins rolled through best-of-seven series against Chicago and Philadelphia, losing only one game in the process and securing their berth in the Finals. The NHL did not bracket teams by conference at this time and everyone just went into a big 12-team melting pot at the end of the season, thus making it possible for the B’s to play a team from the East in the final. Montreal was the only team in hockey with a better regular season record than Boston and they also churned through their two playoff rounds at 8-1 to set up the rematch the Hub craved.
Montreal was coached by Scotty Bowman, at the outset of a career that has marked him one of the great NHL coaches of all time and they were led by right-winger Guy Lafleur, who holds a similar legendary status. Lafleur led the Canadiens in both goals and assists, giving them a single go-to player than the Bruins lacked. Montreal also had Ken Dryden in goal, a big advantage over Boston’s trio of Ron Graham, Giles Gilbert and Gerry Cheevers.
Playing at home, Montreal grabbed the first two games. Lafleur led the way in a decisive 4-1 win to open the series and then he scored the game winner in overtime of Game 2, a 3-2 final. The Bruins showed toughness though, and scored within the first minute of Game 3 back in Boston Garden and rolled to a 4-0 win.
In Game 4, Montreal looked ready to put a chokehold on the series, taking a 3-1 lead in the third period. Boston tied it, the tying goal scored by defenseman Brad Parks, who was solid throughout the Finals. The B’s won in overtime and an ecstatic city saw their team pull even at 2-2 and have momentum on their side.
If momentum in baseball is as good as your next day’s starting pitcher, then in hockey it’s as good as your goalie. Dryden stepped it up in the final two games. A pair of early goals in Game 5 set the tone for a 4-1 Montreal win. Game 6 in Boston saw Parks score the first goal, but Dryden to take over from there, and the Canadiens to again win 4-1.
It was a noble effort. The 1978 Boston Bruins were the second-best team in hockey, one with no quit in them and they’d played Montreal more competitively in this year’s Finals then had been the case in ’77. That doesn’t seem like enough when the best team is your rival and they celebrate in your building.