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Lightning run at Canadiens, Red Wings records impresses Bowman

Coach of historic teams credits Cooper, Vasilevskiy for much of Tampa Bay's success

by Dave Stubbs @Dave_Stubbs / Columnist

MONTREAL -- Scotty Bowman was at the helm of two NHL teams for the ages. Today, the most successful coach in League history is an interested observer with the Tampa Bay Lightning in serious pursuit of record-setting seasons put together by two Bowman-coached teams.

The Lightning, who have 120 points, need 12 of the 14 points available in their final seven games to tie the NHL record of 132 points in a season set by Bowman's 1976-77 Montreal Canadiens. More realistic might be Tampa Bay's chase of the single-season NHL record for wins, needing four more to tie the 62 by Bowman's 1995-96 Detroit Red Wings.

The Lightning (58-13-4) defeated the Carolina Hurricanes 6-3 at PNC Arena on Thursday with backup Louis Domingue in goal. That win came one night after Tampa Bay defeated the Washington Capitals 5-4 in overtime, with No. 1 goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy making a Lightning-record 54 saves.

Riding a seven-game winning streak, the Lightning end their three-game road trip against the St. Louis Blues on Saturday (8 p.m. ET; FS-MW, SUN, NHL.TV) before they play the Boston Bruins on Monday and Capitals on March 30 at Amalie Arena. Then the Lightning finsh the schedule with four road games, at the Ottawa Senators on April 1, the Montreal Canadiens on April 2, the Toronto Maple Leafs on April 4 and their finale in Boston on April 6.

Lightning coach Jon Cooper guided his team to its first Presidents' Trophy on March 18.


As Bowman well knows, anything achieved in the regular season means nothing beyond how it seeds a team for the playoffs.

No matter their pedal-down stretch run, the Lightning changed perhaps a bit of their focus with their 4-1 win against the Arizona Coyotes on March 18. That clinched the Atlantic Division and Eastern Conference and won the Lightning their first Presidents' Trophy, awarded to the team with the NHL's best regular-season record.

"What happens, especially when you're within range of the end of the season, is that you're playing a lot of the season without pressure. Nobody can catch you," said Bowman, drawing one of the few comparisons he'll make between the Lightning and his benchmark teams of decades ago.

Bowman has high praise for Lightning coach Jon Cooper, who picked up his 300th regular-season win on Thursday in his 500th game coached.

"He's pushed all the right buttons, for sure," Bowman said of Cooper, whose team has had stretches of 15-0-1 and 12-0-2 this season, along with a 10-game winning streak. 

Scotty Bowman behind the Canadiens bench during the team's historic 1976-77 season. Hockey Hall of Fame photo


Bowman has no crystal ball that tells him whether the Lightning will catch, or pass, his historic Canadiens or Red Wings teams. What he does know is that Tampa Bay has excellent depth on its roster, fabulous special teams -- it leads the NHL in both power play at 29.5 percent efficiency and penalty-kill at 85.8 percent -- and a brilliant workhorse goaltender in Vasilevskiy, who leads the NHL with 36 wins. Bowman had tremendous goalies during his record-setting seasons, Ken Dryden going 41-6-8 with Montreal and Chris Osgood 39-6-5 with Detroit.

"Vasilevskiy hasn't had many off nights," Bowman said. "I remember his first game back in December after being out 14 games with a broken foot, a huge (48-save) win against Toronto. He's a big goalie (6-foot-4), like Kenny was. He's athletic and he loves to play. I remember talking to (then-Lightning GM) Steve Yzerman a few years ago when Tampa had Vasilevskiy and Ben Bishop. He couldn't keep both (Bishop would be traded to the Los Angeles Kings on Feb. 26, 2017).

"Steve told me that Vasilevskiy loves to practice, he's the first guy on the ice and it bothers him when he doesn't play a game. Kenny was the same in Montreal. Steve told me that he had total confidence that Vasilevskiy was going to be a great No. 1.

"Vasilevskiy, to me, is the key. Whoever Tampa plays (in the playoffs), the goaltender at the other end is going to have to really rise to the occasion. You don't win in the playoffs unless your goalie outplays the other guy. That's historic."

Ken Dryden lost only six of his 56 games played for the Canadiens in 1976-77. Hockey Hall of Fame photo


And Bowman knows a thing or two about making history.

His 1976-77 Canadiens steamrolled the 18-team NHL with a record of 60-8-12 for their 132-point season. It would take that juggernaut 14 games in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, two more than the minimum, to win its second of four consecutive championships.

That team had nine future Hall of Famers, included 1976-77 League-leaders Steve Shutt (60 goals), Guy Lafleur (80 assists, 136 points), Larry Robinson (plus-120) and Dryden (41 wins, 10 shutouts, .920 save percentage). 

Lafleur won the Hart Trophy that season as the NHL most valuable player, the Conn Smythe Trophy as MVP of the Stanley Cup Playoffs and the Lester B. Pearson (now Ted Lindsay Award) as MVP as voted by the players. Robinson won the Norris as best defenseman, Dryden and Michel Larocque shared the Vezina, then awarded to the goalie or goalies whose team allowed the fewest goals, and Bowman was voted winner of the Jack Adams Award as best coach.

Tampa Bay forward Nikita Kucherov appears well on his way to the Hart Trophy this season. He leads the NHL with 120 points (37 goals, 83 assists) and is looking to join LaFleur as the only players in League history to score at least 130 points on a team that has at least 130 points. 

Canadiens stars Guy Lafleur (left) and Steve Shutt wave to fans during Montreal's1976-77 Stanley Cup parade. Hockey Hall of Fame photo


The Canadiens' .825 point percentage that season remains third-best in NHL history, behind only the 1929-30 Bruins (.875 in 44 games) and 1943-44 Canadiens (.830 in 50 games).

"What I remember about the season was that our defense corps scored, I'm guessing, about 60 goals," Bowman said. "They were so prolific offensively. And strong defending, obviously."

In fact, Bowman's defensemen scored 63 of the Canadiens' 387 goals: Guy Lapointe had 25, Robinson 19, Serge Savard nine, Pierre Bouchard four, and Rick Chartraw and Bill Nyrop three each.

Bowman's 1995-96 Red Wings rolled to a 62-13-7 record in a 26-team NHL, their 131 points missing the 1976-77 Canadiens' record by one. The Red Wings would win six- and seven-game playoff series before being eliminated in a six-game conference final against the Colorado Avalanche.

Bowman recalls that edition of the Red Wings for the Oct. 24, 1995 trade with the San Jose Sharks for Igor Larianov, who joined countrymen Sergei Fedorov, Vyacheslav Kozlov, Viacheslav Fetisov and Vladimir Konstantinov to form the legendary Russian Five.

Fedorov won the Selke Trophy that season as the best defensive forward in the NHL, goalies Chris Osgood and Mike Vernon shared the William M. Jennings Trophy for fewest goals allowed and Bowman again won the Adams.

From left, Detroit Red Wings Chris Osgood, Mike Vernon, Scotty Bowman and Sergei Fedorov with their 1995-96 trophies.


"We'd had a disappointing end the season before," Bowman said, the 1994-95 Red Wings swept by the New Jersey Devils in a four-game Stanley Cup Final. "Maybe that was the motivation. Everything has to fall into place if you're going to have that kind of season. We didn't win the Cup, of course (the Avalanche did), but we had a lot of experience from the year before, we got on a winning roll and it just kept going."

The winner of an NHL-record nine Stanley Cup titles as a coach, Bowman says if he had a ballot for the Jack Adams Award, he'd be hard pressed today to choose between Cooper and Barry Trotz, who's worked magic with the New York Islanders after having led the Capitals to the 2017-18 Stanley Cup.

For now, the legend is watching the Lightning set sights on the performance bars of two of his greatest teams.

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