The 1980 Boston Bruins were coming off a strong run of seasons, but ones that kept ending in disappointment at the hands of the archrival Montreal Canadiens. The Bruins lost the Finals to the Canadiens in 1977 and 1978 and lost a crushing semifinal Game 7 in 1979. Boston didn’t lose to Montreal in 1980, but they took a step back and it marked the onset of a short dry period in franchise history.
A new coach was in place. Don Cherry took the fall for the playoff heartbreak and Fred Creighton was brought in from Atlanta to replace him. Boston continued to be a well-balanced team and it started with defense. The goaltending duties were split between veteran Gerry Cheevers and up-and-coming Gilles Gilbert and the Bruins ranked second in the NHL in goal prevention.
The offense was good too, with forward Rick Middleton and center Peter McNab each scoring 40 goals. Jean Ratelle was a solid offensive contributor and the Bruins brought up a 19-year-old defenseman who would become the second-greatest player in their history. Ray Borque trails only Bobby Orr in the list of all-time great Bruins. Borque also joined an Edmonton kid by the name of Wayne Gretzky in making this 1980 rookie class one for the ages.
Boston got off to a strong 15-3-3 start, highlighted by a nine-game win streak in November that included a split of two games with Montreal that went on back-to-back nights the Saturday and Sunday of Thanksgiving weekend. A brief slide followed, going 2-6-2, but the Bruins were still 20-10-5 when the calendar officially flipped to 1980.
An eight-game win streak in January keyed a streak where Boston got to 33-14-7 in early February. A 3-2 loss to Montreal ended that hot streak, but the Bruins were able to keep playing consistent hockey. They finished the regular season at 46-21-3, but there was turmoil afoot.
General manager Harry Sinden, who had coached the 1970 Stanley Cup champs in Boston, fired Creighton and went to the bench himself with two weeks left in the season. And one more loss to the Canadiens, this one 6-1, was a reminder of their inability to beat the four-time defending Stanley Cup champs.
The playoffs were expanded in 1980 from 12 teams to 16, so Boston, with the fourth-best record in the NHL, would have to play the best-of-five first round. The postseason was also open seeding, with no conference distinctions.
Pittsburgh, whom Boston had swept out in the 1979 quarterfinals, was the opponent. The Penguins had a weak offensive team, with Rick Kehoe the only goal-scorer of any note. But they were good defensively, ranking fourth in the league in goals allowed. And that defense, with 22-year-old goalie Greg Millen anchoring it, came into Boston Garden and stole the opener 4-2.
The Bruins grabbed Game 2, but again couldn’t solve the Penguin defense in a 4-1 loss in Pittsburgh. Their backs to the wall, the Boston offense was finally able to open up and unload on the young Millen—an 8-2 win sent the series back to the Garden where a 6-3 win sent the B’s to the quarterfinals.
Boston would face the New York Islanders, who were the #5 seed, but they had talent that was a lot better than that. Bryan Trottier was a 40-goal scorer and was fifth in the league in assists. Mike Bossy was a 50-goal scorer and fifth-best in the league at lighting the lamp. Moreover, they were a team that had been knocking on the door in recent years and 1980 was the spring these Islanders would kick that door in.
The first two games went to overtime, but the Bruins lost both at home. Perhaps a break or two might have delayed the coming of New York for one more year, but Boston’s only win in this series was Game 4. The Islanders displaced the Montreal Dynasty and won the first of what would be four straight Cups of their own.
The Bruins no longer had to worry about getting their hearts ripped out by the Canadiens—there were bigger problems. While Boston made the conference finals in 1983, they were mostly a non-threat in the postseason until getting back to the Finals in 1988.