The Montreal Canadiens ruled hockey in the late 1970s, winning four consecutive Stanley Cup championships from '76-79 with firewagon offense, tremendous defense and brilliant goaltending. So dominant were the Canadiens that every other NHL team knew in its heart that the priceless trophy might as well be engraved before the season's first game.
Video: 1977-78 Canadiens win Cup for third straight season
Coached by the legendary Scotty Bowman, the 1977-78 edition was as good as any of the four in the dynasty, winning 59 games, losing 10 and tying 11. (The Canadiens went 58-11-11 in 1975-76, 60-8-12 in 1976-77 and 52-17-11 in 1978-79.) Fifteen players dressed for all four teams; nine would be inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame: goalie Ken Dryden, forwards Yvan Cournoyer, Bob Gainey, Guy Lafleur, Jacques Lemaire and Steve Shutt, and defensemen Guy Lapointe, Larry Robinson and Serge Savard, the "Big Three" of Montreal's blue line.
[1977-78 Montreal Canadiens roster]
Dryden, Lafleur, Gainey, Robinson and Savard combined to win 19 individual trophies during the span. In 1977-78, Dryden and backup Michel Larocque shared the Vezina Trophy, then given to the goaltenders on the team that allowed the fewest goals; Lafleur won the Hart Trophy as MVP, the Art Ross Trophy as the League's scoring leader and the Lester B. Pearson (now Ted Lindsay) Award as the most outstanding player as voted by the players; Gainey won the Selke Trophy as the best defensive forward in the NHL; and Robinson won the Conn Smythe Trophy as MVP of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
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No matter the stupendous talent on the 1977-78 Canadiens, Robinson remembers something even greater than the actual numbers.
"Our chemistry was more important than the skill," he said. "You spent more time together as a group with each other than you did with your own families. Going to the rink, practicing, travel … Back then we didn't travel on charters; we flew commercial. I remember one time coming home when we couldn't get out of Chicago so we spent eight hours in the airport. Can you imagine the stuff that went on?"
Robinson laughed as the memories of the mischief washed over him.
"Oh my God, it was great," he said.
If everyone pretty much knew the Canadiens would mop the ice with the competition on most nights, that wasn't the feeling in the Montreal dressing room.
"If the other team beat us, their month was set," said Shutt, whose 49 goals that season were second on the Canadiens to Lafleur's 60. "The one thing about being champion is that you're going to get everybody's best game against you."
Savard said that even with the Canadiens' confidence, there was fear.
"I don't remember in those days that we were so dominant," he said. "I look back at it now and yes, but I also remember being scared all the time. Winning was not a done deal. We probably had the best coach, not just the best players. Scotty made a guy like Lafleur, and a lot of players, better."
Cournoyer, the captain, said: "We were just afraid to lose. We respected our opponent, always. With the team we had, if everybody was doing his job, we knew we had a chance."
In 1978, the Canadiens won their 21st Stanley Cup championship, defeating three fellow Original Six teams in the playoffs.
Montreal opened the postseason with a 6-2 home win against the Detroit Red Wings, then lost 4-2 before going on a nine-game winning streak, eliminating Detroit in five games, sweeping the Toronto Maple Leafs in four and defeating the Boston Bruins in the first two games of the Stanley Cup Final.
The Bruins rallied to tie the series 2-2 before Montreal twice won 4-1, clinching the Cup by winning Game 6 at Boston Garden.
"Nine guys in the Hall of Fame on that team, but a huge portion of it was Scotty," Shutt said of Bowman. "The thing about Scotty is that he knew there was only one team that could beat us, and that was ourselves. He just made sure that we never got too cocky or too comfortable.
"A lot of Scotty was his work on the bench. If something wasn't working, he'd start changing lines. The media would start counting how many line combinations he had out there one game. I remember for a while he had Bob Gainey playing defense. He wasn't afraid of making changes. He'd just have right people on the ice at the right time. All the time."
Bowman clearly pushed all the right buttons in 1977-78. And with a perfect blend of superstars and role players on one of the greatest teams ever, he had all the talent he needed to get results.
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The Greatest NHL Teams were voted by fans during the 2017 Stanley Cup Playoffs, as part of the NHL Centennial Celebration. Stanley Cup championship teams from 1918-2016 were eligible, and the top 10 were announced during the 2017 Final.