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2022-23 Boston Bruins and the 1976-1977 Montreal Canadiens

Friday 3/3/23

The Bruins won again last night over the Sabres for their ninth victory in a row. The NHL schedule is baffling to me. A team takes a week off, then they play a lot of games, with bad travel, in a short amount of days. It's going to be a grind the rest of the way--regular season and postseason.

I had thought earlier in the season that the Bruins had a slight Jeremy Swayman problem. That is, he was off his game and the team just didn't play as well in front of him as they did Linus Ullmark. They don't have a Swayman problem anymore. I thought maybe they had a problem in that while Ullmark is the number one goalie, he doesn't play that much more than Swayman does, and it could be hard for him--and not great for the team--to then have him play every night in the playoffs. How would he respond? When teams start switching goalies in the playoffs, that's usually not so hot. It can work out. The Islanders used to have two guys play, though Billy Smith would take over, and the Oilers did, too, at times with Andy Moog and Grant Fuhr. I no longer think it will be an issue. It's so hard to win the Stanley Cup right now, and you would almost always have to bet the field over any one team, but I think the entire Bruins squad have the right mindset. Physical health will play a role, as it always does. Marchand left the game last night. Hall is out. Jim Montgomery strikes me as a coach who knows what he is doing. Sometimes, being a good coach comes down to that more than anything else. It's someone who knows what they are doing. Has reasons. Has answers. Has a plan and can make a plan. Has the pulse of the players, both individually and as a collective unit.

Perhaps the most impressive win the Bruins have had this season was the other night in Calgary. That was a game you're supposed to lose, no matter who you are. It was their fourth game in six nights, the last game of a four-game West Coast set, the second of a back-to-back against a Flames team that needed that win for the playoff hunt. The Bruins were outshot 57-20. No legs. Tired. Wiped. But Ullmark played like the Hart trophy candidate he is, and the team gutted out an OT win that must have felt like a considerable blow to those Flames. The best teams--I'm talking special, historical teams, not the best teams in any given year--find ways to win games of this nature.

Ullmark salted away the Vezina a while ago--barring extended injury--but the goalie goal he scored against the Canucks will be the signature play of his season. The scrapbook play, the way that Doug Flutie's Hail Mary in 1984 against Miami was his signature play of his Heisman season. The Ullmark goal wasn't as dramatic, but it had a real degree of difficulty. The elevation he got on that shot was impressive. You can tell that the Bruins' goalies talk about scoring a goal. Swayman came damn close earlier this year, and Ullmark didn't hesitate. The Bruins' only had a one-goal lead, so he also must have been pretty confident to try the shot.

I had expected--or thought there was a pretty good chance--that the Bruins would come back to the rest of the league some after they lost a few games in a row. They didn't really lose a few games in a row, though. Or not to me. I don't count OT or shootout losses as losses. That stuff is gimmicky. It's not real hockey. I'll take either as a win and count it as a win, so maybe I'm hypocritical that way, but when I look at an NHL team's record, I focus on one column in particular: the L column. That tells me what I need to know. I look at straight-up, regulation losses over wins. Says more about what a team is.

The Bruins' record now sits at 48-8-5. I don't know what to say about that. You just don't see a record like that one. The numbers look funny. This season won't mean anything if they don't win the Cup. If they do win the Cup--and again, it's hard to bet one team over the field, so the "if" is sizable--they'll be in the discussion for one of the best teams in NHL history. They don't have to surpass the 1976-1977 Canadiens record-wise. They won't. You really can't. Even if you're pacing ahead of that Canadiens team fairly late in the season, you still won't best their record. Here's why.

On January 17, 1977, the Canadiens fell to the Bruins, at the Garden, by a score of 7-3, which dropped the Canadiens' record to 33-7-6. There was no regular season OT at the time and obviously no shootouts. These current Bruins were thus ahead of that Montreal team's pace.

But here's where it begins to get almost impossible. Montreal didn't lose again until March 6 in Buffalo, by a score of 4-1. Note any similarities? Those were the two smallest rinks in the NHL. The Canadiens were a free-flowing, uptempo team. And yes, that's right, not all ice surfaces were the same size back then. The sheets were as wide, but not as long. Just those two rinks. It's one reason why the high-flying Edmonton Oilers of the Gretzky era struggled some at the old Garden. The loss in Buffalo moved the Canadiens' record to 50-8-10.

The current Bruins are nearly on pace here in early March as well. Same number of losses, two less wins. But here's why the Canadiens' record is virtually impossible to equal or better. They had eleven games left in their season. They didn't lose again. Put another way: from January 18 to April 3--a span of thirty-three games--they lost once. (Somehow in this season, the dreadful Detroit Red Wings tied the Canadiens 2-2). I don't know how you can match this Canadiens team, record-wise. They had some cupcakes to blow through (Cleveland Barons, for example), and that helped, but still, the record was what the record was. I don't think they're the best team in NHL history. They're close. I'd take the 1983-84 Oilers and the 1981-82 Islanders first. But damn, right? They finished, of course, at 60-8-12.

The Canadiens blew through everyone in the playoffs, save the Islanders, who managed to take two games from them, the only games the Canadiens lost that postseason. Says a lot about the Islanders in what was the season before Mike Bossy's rookie year.

But that's where these current Bruins stand in the historical context. I've never seen a Bruins team have a season like this one, and for dominance, the only other Boston teams in my lifetime--and again, it doesn't really mean anything if you don't win the championship--are the 2003-2004 Patriots teams and the 1985-86 Celtics. Where do those teams stack up historically? I'd nominate the 2004 edition of the Patriots as the best team in NFL history, and the 1985-86 Celtics as the second best team in NBA history behind the 1995-96 Bulls. These Bruins are moving into lofty realms. But the deal-sealing is everything.


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