Ducks and Sabres? Ha! Just look up the ol' Habs
Doug Risebrough doesn't recall Scotty Bowman being a big pep-talk guy.
"But before the last game of that year, in Washington, I think it was," reminisced the Minnesota Wild general manager, "Scotty walked into the room, cleared his throat and gave a little speech. That in itself was odd. And I remember he said something like, 'Boys, do it tonight and we'll become the first team in NHL history to win 60 games!'
"And I'm sitting there, getting my stuff on, totally oblivious to what we'd been doing, and thinking, 'What? Are we that good?!'"
No -- better.
As the Anaheim Ducks kept layering W on top of W to open this fall and early winter, as Teemu Selanne continued to defy time, as the defense tag-team of Chris Pronger and Scott Niedermayer put figure-four leg locks on the opposition's top snipers, there were whispers and distant echoes back to the ghosts of 1976-77.
Nothing more, it turns out, than fools' fancy.
That Montreal Canadiens outfit was hung with only eight losses over 80 games. Eight! Consider that no team among the 30 suffered less than 11 during a 48-game, labor impasse-shortened 1994-95 season, and the enormity of what the Canadiens accomplished in that golden season comes into clearer focus.
At the halfway mark of this season, the injury-plagued Ducks and Buffalo Sabres, jousting for the perch as hockey's top team, have already incurred nine losses apiece.
"It'll never happen again," Risebrough flatly contended.
His gaze is unwavering.
This season marks the 30-year anniversary of that legendary Canadiens aggregation, a perennial favorite when selecting a "finest team of the modern era." And as Risebrough said, check back in another 30 years and you won't see any other team close to that, and another 30 after that, and well, you get the picture.
In the NBA, a league with a comparable schedule, the Jordan-propelled Chicago Bulls of 1995-96 lost 10 games out of 82. Hoops buffs still drop to one knee to genuflect when that team is mentioned in conversation.
Since the 1967-68 expansion, here's a look at how teams have fared after posting a strong regular season:
MOST POINTS, DID NOT WIN CUP
• 2005-2006 Detroit Red Wings
• 1970-71 Boston Bruins
• 1985-86 Edmonton Oilers
• 1992-93 Pittsburgh Penguins
MOST POINTS AND CUP WINNERS
So, as an iconic sports record, the Canadiens' eight losses figures to be one that'll stand as long as, say, Joe DiMaggio's 56-game hitting streak or Glenn Hall's 506 consecutive starts in net.
After being pounded 7-3 at Boston on Jan. 17, 1977, the Habs lost only once in their last 34 games. They went 33-1-6 in 40 games at the fabled Montreal Forum. Swept along the jet stream of the flamboyant "Flower," Guy Lafleur, the Canadiens scored 387 goals and gave up only 171 in 80 starts. They finished 20 points clear of the league runner-up Flyers.
The only logical comparison since are the Bowman-coached Red Wings of 1995-96. Detroit won 62 with two more games on the schedule, but it also lost 13, scoring less and giving up more goals than Bowman's Canadiens. Montreal also outpointed the Wings by one (132-131) in the standings -- in two fewer starts. Advantage, Habs.
And, most important, that Detroit squad didn't bring home the Stanley Cup in the spring. Colorado did. The 1976-77 Habs breezed through the playoffs, going 12-2, including sweeps of St. Louis and Boston, to claim the chalice.
Said Risebrough: "We had the best player in the league [Lafleur], arguably the best goalie in the league in Kenny [Dryden], three of the top six defensemen in the league [Larry Robinson, Guy Lapointe and Serge Savard], the best two-way player in the league in Jacques [Lemaire] and Steve Shutt scored 60 goals.
"What more could you ask for?"
Not a heckuva lot. The season before, the Canadiens had put an end to the Philadelphia Flyers' muscle-bound championship run and played inarguably one of the most famous, emotionally compelling games of all time, the 3-3 New Year's Eve tie against the invading Central Red Army on Forum ice.
In 1976-77, for an encore, the team got even better.
"Scotty just never let us get complacent," Risebrough said. "I don't remember ever thinking, 'How few can we lose?' or 'How low can we come in at?' that year. Not at all. I can't remember anybody even mentioning it. It wasn't as if we were satisfied after reeling in three or four Cups in a row. We felt we still had plenty to prove."
In the first three seasons of their Stanley string (1975-78), the Habs lost only 29 regular-season starts. Already this season, the woebegotten Flyers have lost 28. And, as mentioned, they finished it off with a bang. The perfect capper.
History lectures us that regular-season dominance bears surprisingly little correlation to playoff glory. Since Montreal ended its four-year run of dominance in 1979, only nine of 26 regular-season champions have gone on to collect the Cup.
When all was tallied in the spring of 1977, the Canadiens were 72-10-12 and had been crowned champions. It's hard to envision any team putting together a season like that in today's NHL.
"The parity today is one reason," Risebrough said. "The new [CBA] rules are designed to make more teams competitive. And if you check back, I believe [GM Sam Pollock] had accumulated four first-round picks in '72, one in '73, five in '74 and two or three in '76. Now, it's not as if he got those for free. He had to give to get. But stockpiling that amount of good, young talent is what built that team.
"You simply can't look that long-term today."
That Canadiens' season stands alone in terms of dominance and remains etched in memory like a revered engraving.
"I really didn't think much about history or what we were accomplishing [at the time]," Risebrough said. "I don't imagine anyone did. We had a feeling we were a good team, sure, but you look at it now, 30 years later quite a year. One to look back on. One to be proud of."
One for the ages.
George Johnson, a columnist for the Calgary Herald, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.
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