The 1979 Montreal Canadiens marked the end of an era in franchise history–they capped off a great dynasty run by winning a fourth straight Stanley Cup and they used one of the more memorable moments in NHL playoff history to do it.
Montreal had set lofty standards in its Cup runs of 1976-78 and you could see signs of slippage in ’79. For the first time in the run, they did not get the #1 seed in the playoffs. They “only” went 52-17-11 and “settled” for the #2 seed, one point behind the New York Islanders. Instead of being the best in the NHL in both goals scored and goals allowed, the ’79 Canadiens “slipped” to second on offense, while retaining the top ranking on defense.
There was also new personnel working their way in, as Previe Mondou and Mario Trembley took on greater roles and were 30-plus goal scorers in a lineup that got a little less deep each year into the dynasty.
What the Canadiens still had was Guy Lafleur at right wing and he continued to make up the slack for declining depth, this time scoring 52 goals and dishing 77 assists. Those numbers ranked 2nd in the 3rd in the NHL respectively. The Canadiens still had the great defenseman Larry Robinson, who was a 1st-team All-Star along with Lafleur. And above all, they still had the magnificent Ken Dryden in goal, who won another Vezina Trophy as the league’s top netminder. And they still had left winger Steve Shutt, who even in decline, was still good for 37 goals.
The structure of the NHL playoffs had 12 of the league’s 18 teams qualify and seeding took place without regard to conference affiliation, so East and West could crisscross at any point in the bracket. Montreal, as one of the top four teams got a first-round bye and avoided the best-of-three preliminary round. The Canadiens then drew Toronto, the third straight year they had faced the Maple Leafs.
It was basically the same Toronto team of previous seasons, with good scorers and Darryl Sitter and Lanny McDonald, and a top defenseman in Borjie Salming, a 2nd-team All-Star. And it was basically the same result. Montreal was in command of the first two games at home, scoring a combined ten goals and winning each one decisively. The Canadiens then got seriously pushed in Games 3 & 4 back in Toronto, going to double-overtime in the third game before surviving 4-3. Then the fourth game went to overtime before Montreal won 5-4. It was the first sign that this playoff run wasn’t going to be the coronation affair of recent seasons.
The Canadiens faced the Boston Bruins in the semifinals. The Bruins were the third-best team in hockey and had taken Montreal to six games in the previous year’s Stanley Cup Finals. They ranked fourth in scoring and sixth on defense, with a balanced lineup that didn’t rely on one scorer, but spread the wealth among Rick Middleton, Peter McNab, Terry O’Reilly and Jean Ratelle. And they gave Montreal everything the champs could possibly want.
It didn’t start out like a dramatic series, with the Canadiens winning the first two games by a combined score of 9-3. When the series returned to Boston Garden, the Bruins won both games ,including a 4-3 overtime decision in Game 4. It was shaping up strikingly like the ’78 Finals had and when Montreal convincingly won Game 5 by a 5-1 count, the pattern was holding. But this time, instead of rolling over, Boston grabbed the sixth game by a 5-2 score. Game 7 back in Montreal was tied 3-3 with less than five minutes to go when the drama kicked into high gear.
Middleton scored with four minutes left and the Montreal Dynasty was on life support. With less than three minutes left, Boston was whistled for too many men on the ice. On the ensuing power play, Lafleur scored to tie the game. It’s a moment that lives in Boston sports infamy, somewhere just behind the Buckner ground ball and the Tyree catch. Montreal had new life and they won it in overtime.
The Canadiens got another break when it came to the Finals matchup. For the second straight year, the Islanders would be upset one round prior to getting a crack at Montreal. New York was a young team that had gradually gained steam through each year of the Montreal Dynasty and by 1980 the Islanders would start a dynastic run of their own. But their experience hadn’t yet matched their talent and while Montreal always took care of business, the Isles would mess things up. Like losing in the semifinals to an inferior crosstown rival in the Rangers.
The Rangers’ best player was Phil Esposito, one of great scorers of his era, but now 36-years-old. And they had the fifth-best record in hockey, so it’s not like this was a bad team. But the NHL was much more top-heavy in those days than it is now, even beyond Montreal. The gap between the top and the fifth-best team was considerable and it showed in these Stanley Cup Finals.
Montreal took the ice three days after the Game 7 epic and were still out of it, falling behind 2-0 in the first period and losing 4-1. But they quickly righted themselves and took over. A 6-2 win in Game 2 set the tone for the remainder of the Finals. The Canadiens reclaimed home ice with a 4-1 win in Game 3 and then survived an overtime battle, 4-3 in Game 4. They returned home for another 4-1 win in Game 5. The Stanley Cup had gone to Montreal yet again.
The Conn Smythe Award went to Bob Gainey, who scored six goals and had ten assists. It was a bizarre decision, given that Jacques Lemaire had 11/12, while Lafleur had number of 10/13, to say nothing of the biggest goal of the entire dynasty run in Game 7 of the semifinals. Dryden had what was, for him, a relatively pedestrian playoff, with 2.48 goals-against-average. Keep in mind, this is sterling, but by Dryden’s impeccable standards, falls short. Anyway, I’d have picked Lafleur for the Conn Smythe.
Montreal was the epitome of a proud veteran champion in 1979. Their stranglehold on the rest of the league was gone, but they still kept finding ways to win and added one more championship to their franchise’s long resume.