Murray Wilson rarely thinks about playing on the team that had the best season in NHL history.
“The thing that people always ask is, ‘How many Cups did you win?’ or, ‘How many rings do you have?’” Wilson said. “They never talk about the regular season. And we never did in Montreal, either. The regular season was just a means to the end.”
Wilson and the 1976-77 Montreal Canadiens set the regular-season points record with 132 and went on to win the Stanley Cup. The ’95-96 Detroit Red Wings and 2018-19 Tampa Bay Lightning, who share the record for victories with 62, each endured a stinging playoff defeat.
With the Boston Bruins now chasing the points and wins marks, members of the record-setting Canadiens, Red Wings and Lightning understand what it’s like to be this dominant all season. And they know there are lessons to be learned and apply come playoff time.
“When you have a banner season, you always worry that you have no adversity,” said Hall of Fame coach Scotty Bowman, who was behind the bench for Montreal and Detroit among his 30-plus seasons in the NHL. “Who wants adversity, you know? You don’t look for it. But sometimes when you get adversity, it kind of gets your attention.”
Perhaps a brief skid in January or three losses in four games in March will prove enough adversity for the Bruins, a team Bowman called the deepest he has seen in some time. Or it could come at some stage of the playoffs.
Montreal did not face much adversity 46 years ago, losing only once at home and eight times overall with 12 ties during an 80-game season back when games ended after regulation and there was no overtime. But three of those losses came against archrival Boston, which was enough for Bowman to motivate his players when the teams met in the final.
Wilson recalled Bowman challenging the Canadiens, saying Boston’s stars were just as good if not better than Montreal’s Guy Lafleur, Jacques Lemaire and Steve Shutt.
“When he set the fire under those three, the rest of us just followed,” Wilson recalled.
The Canadiens, who lost just twice in three rounds of playoffs, won the Cup in a four-game sweep.
A very different result awaited the Red Wings 19 years later, and they inadvertently put a roadblock in their own way.
Bowman remembers an 11-1 victory at Montreal as if it was yesterday because Canadiens coach Mario Tremblay left Patrick Roy in for nine goals against and angered the elite goaltender to the point he demanded a trade. Roy was traded to the Colorado Avalanche, Detroit’s biggest rival and challenger in the West.
“We were really sailing along, but we kind of destroyed ourselves,” Bowman recalled. “We won the game, but we probably killed ourselves.”
Having already adjusted after a loss to New Jersey in the 1995 final to play better defensively, the Red Wings learned another tried-and-true hockey lesson by running into a hot goalie at the wrong time. Roy beat them in the Western Conference final on the way to backstopping Colorado to its first championship.
“That was probably the biggest disappointment that we had and I had,” said Bowman, who won the Stanley Cup a league-high nine times as a coach. “It was a tough loss for us because we won 62 games and we still didn’t win the Cup.”
Better times were ahead. Detroit won the Cup the following two seasons, getting through Roy in 1997 and sweeping the final each time.
That turned out to be something of a blueprint for the Lightning a generation later, after they cruised along all season winning too easily. They scored nearly four goals a game and never lost more than two in a row.
“Our regular season was great, and we piled up a lot of wins,” center Anthony Cirelli said. “How we’d win games, we’d outscore teams. Obviously our power play was unbelievable that year. I think we had a lot of comeback wins, as well. But then you go into the playoffs and it’s not about goal scoring.”
Tampa Bay scored the first three goals of Game 1 against eighth-seeded Columbus before blowing that lead, falling behind in the series and getting unceremoniously swept out of the first round. Management didn’t fire coach Jon Cooper or make wholesale roster moves, but Cooper said, “It was pretty evident that things had to change.”
His team focused more on keeping the puck out of its net rather than filling the opponent’s, content to win a game 1-0 or 2-1 instead of 7-0. Cooper said, “It took us failing at being the greatest show on ice” to learn how to win in the playoffs.
The Lightning went on to back-to-back championships in 2020 and ’21, with a shutout in each Cup clincher, and reached the final again last year.
“It helped us,” longtime Lightning winger Ondrej Palat said. “If we didn’t get that slap in the face in ’18-19, we wouldn’t have won those two Stanley Cups, so it maybe it was a learning curve.”
With top center Patrice Bergeron being 37 and David Krejci about to turn the same age, goalie Linus Ullmark turning in a career season and a handful of trade-deadline rentals acquired to win now, the Bruins likely don’t have a long runway to lose and learn. And players, for their part, have shrugged off records in pursuit of Boston’s first title since 2011.
The urgency is certainly there, much as it was for the Canadiens during their late-1970s dynasty, when winning it all was all that mattered.
“I’ll put it this way,” Wilson said. “If we didn’t win the Cup and we had seasons like that, we wouldn’t have stayed in Montreal for the summertime.”
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