The Greatest Team — Ever?

TORONTO (Dec. 24) — With the National Hockey League pausing for the Christmas holiday break, there’s a potentially remarkable development at the top of the overall standings. And, it might include the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Right now, it features the Boston Bruins, Toronto’s rival in the Atlantic Division. With a record of 27–4–2 for 56 points (.849 win percentage), the Bruins, after 33 games, are four points ahead of the pace established by the 1976–77 Montreal Canadiens, the club that still holds the NHL single–season mark of 132 points (Boston has the most points after 33 games in NHL history). Coached by Scotty Bowman and led on the ice by such Hall–of–Famers as Ken Dryden, Larry Robinson, Serge Savard, Guy Lafleur and Yvan Cournoyer, the ’76–77 Canadiens were 24–5–4 (52 points, .788 win percentage) after 33 games and finished 60–8–12 for the most wins (at the time) and fewest losses (still a record) in a minimum, 70–game schedule. Montreal proceeded to capture its second of four consecutive Stanley Cup titles. In order to match the ’76–77 Canadiens, the current Bruins must accrue 76 points in their remaining 49 games (.776 win percentage). A mark of 33–4–10 would precisely equal Montreal’s 80–game record, with still two remaining matches in the current, 82–game schedule. The ’76–77 Habs were 33–1–6 at the Montreal Forum for the fewest home losses in a minimum 70–game season. The 2022–23 Bruins are undefeated in regulation time (18–0–2) after 20 games at the TD Garden, but must still go 15–1–4 to equal Montreal’s home–ice mark. It may not be long, in other words, before historians bust out the record book.


Here’s how the Bruins rank, after 33 games, against the other best NHL seasons (minimum 70 games):

DETROIT RED WINGS 1995–96 — Final Record: 62–13–7 for 131 points.
After 33 games: 24–7–2 for 50 points.
MONTREAL CANADIENS 1977–78 — Final Record: 59–10–11 for 129 points.
After 33 games: 22–7–4 for 48 points.
TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING 2018–19 — Final Record: 62–16–4 for 128 points.
After 33 games: 25–7–1 for 51 points.
MONTREAL CANADIENS 1975–76 — Final Record: 58–11–11 for 127 points.
After 33 games: 23–5–5 for 51 points.
BOSTON BRUINS 1970–71 — Final Record: 57–14–7 for 121 points.
After 33 games: 23–5–5 for 51 points.

To this point, the Bruins have been defeated only four times in regulation: 7–5 at Ottawa (Oct. 18); 2–1 at Toronto (Nov. 5); 5–2 at Florida (Nov. 23) and 4–3 at Arizona (Dec. 9). Shootout losses have twice happened on home ice: 4–3 vs. Vegas (Dec. 5) and 3–2 vs. Los Angeles (Dec. 15). Five Boston wins have occurred in extra time.

How do the Maple Leafs fit into this puzzle?

Toronto, at the break, stands fourth in the NHL with a record, after 34 games, of 21–7–6 for 48 points — trailing Boston (56), Carolina (50) and Vegas (49). The Leafs are six points off the pace of the ’76–77 Canadiens (25–5–4 after 34 games). Last season, when the Leafs established records for wins (54) and points (115), the club was actually one point better after 34 games: 23–8–3 for 49 points. In its remaining matches, Toronto went 31–13–4 for a final mark of 54–21–7. So, the Leafs must go 33–14–1 to match last year’s historic season. To equal the ’76-77 Canadiens (after 80 games), the Leafs need a record of 39–1–6 in the next 46 games. A virtually impossible task… but, only slightly less probable than Boston’s requirement of 33–4–10. The conclusion: Montreal’s team of 46 years ago will continue to stand alone once this season ends. Again, here’s what the Bruins must accomplish:

CURRENT RECORD (after 33 games): 27–4–2 for 56 points.
RECORD NEEDED TO MATCH MONTREAL: 33–4–10 for 76 points in the next 47 games.

As of now, if we double the Maple Leafs current mark and factor in the club’s first 14 games (to equal 82), Toronto would finish 49–18–15 for 113 points, two points off last season’s record performance. Here’s what happens when using the same equation with Boston: Doubling the current mark would place the Bruins at 54–8–4 after 66 games. Adding the 14–2–0 ledger of its first 16 games (to equal 82) would see Boston finish at 68–10–4 for 140 points, smashing the NHL single–season record by six wins and eight points. Again, we determine that as unlikely.

AIMING MODESTLY: After failing in six consecutive attempts to advance beyond the opening round of post–season competition (a record amid professional sports teams in North America), the playoff bar is set as low as possible for the Maple Leafs. This was affirmed by hockey columnist Chris Johnston of the Toronto Star. In a submission entitled A GIFT FOR EVERY NHL TEAM THIS HOLIDAY SEASON, Johnston wrote about the Leafs: “A playoff series victory. Forget the debate about what constitutes a successful season. Even with the entire organization thinking ‘Stanley Cup or bust,’ it can’t be denied how important just one best–of–seven triumph would be. The players, the fans, the front office need that release.” Chris is bang on. And, it’s rather pitiful to consider that front–office jobs are contingent on such a minuscule achievement — merely 25 percent of what is required to win the NHL championship. It does, however, supplant the minimal goal of so many Leaf seasons, post 1967: simply making the playoffs. The club, you’ll recall, failed to qualify for the Stanley Cup tournament a record 10 consecutive times in a full, 82–game schedule, beginning in 2005–06. Since drafting the Big 3 up front (William Nylander, Mitch Marner, Auston Matthews), the Maple Leafs have put together two of the three–most prolific seasons in franchise history: 115 points (last year); 105 points (2017–18) and 100 points (2018–19). The only other three–digit performances occurred in 2003–04 (103 points); 1999–2000 and 2001–02 (100 points each). The latter three clubs, coached by the late Pat Quinn, totaled four playoff round victories; the 2002 Maple Leafs the last to advance to the Stanley Cup semifinals, losing in six games against Carolina. So, yeah, the bar needs to be raised.

BORJE LAID TO REST


On Tuesday of this week, 26 days after dying with the incurable Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS, Lou Gehrig’s Disease), Maple Leafs legend Borje Salming was buried during a small, private ceremony in Stockholm. Though a number of former Leaf teammates were invited, they will, instead, travel to Sweden for an ALS fundraising event in February. Translated to english from the Swedish newspaper Expressen: On Tuesday, the family said goodbye to the hockey icon together with Salming’s closest friends. The family chose to keep the funeral closed to other guests, to have a private moment together to say goodbye. They had a low–key, private ceremony, according to Salming’s long-time teammate and close friend, Darryl Sittler, who was invited but could not attend. “We sent a greeting to the family, but we couldn’t go now,” said Sittler. “It was difficult with the timing, with Christmas and travel, and they understood. But we look forward to meeting them in February when we come to Sweden.”

FROM THE VAULT

Hockey magazines in my collection.

 
THE ANNUAL INSIDE HOCKEY ISSUES (ABOVE, BOTTOM–LEFT), FROM THE FIRST THREE YEARS OF EXPANSION (1967–68 to 1969–70). THESE WERE PREVIEW MAGAZINES BY SPORTS QUARTERLY. ANOTHER ANNUAL, FACE–OFF (BOTTOM–RIGHT) CAME OUT PRIOR TO THE 1969–70 SEASON.

 
 
HOCKEY ILLUSTRATED MAGAZINE WAS NOTED FOR A FOUR–PAGE, COLOR CENTER–SPREAD. THESE ARE ISSUES FROM JANUARY AND MARCH 1967 (ABOVE); JANUARY AND APRIL 1968 (BELOW).

 
EMAIL: HOWARDLBERGER@GMAIL.COM

3 comments on “The Greatest Team — Ever?

  1. Howard. I cannot comprehend how Shanahan and Dubas are so proud of their achievements in the last six years. They have accomplished exactly nothing. Dubas inherited the core of the team. Give me Matthews, Marner, Nylander, and Rielly and even I can produce a winning regular season. I don’t include his signing of Tavares as I consider that the mistake that led to all the cap problems.
    If I hear one more person who covers the team say that they need to lock up Dubas or risk losing him my head will explode. By all means let’s keep him here for another five years of meaningless 100 point seasons.

    1. The regular season is not meaningless. But, it’s become increasingly irrelevant for the Leafs. There is a difference. And, this group has yet another chance to show it can perform when the stakes are high.

  2. And yet they’re still behind the pace of the 1929-30 Bruins, who went 38-5-1 that year in a 44-game schedule for an .875 winning percentage that would equal 144 points in an 82-game season. Those Bruins were 28-4-1 after 33 games. (But, like the 1970-71 Boston team that similarly re-wrote the NHL record book, they didn’t win the Stanley Cup!)

    Different era, and a different game, for sure. But still, if you want to talk history…

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