All postseason the NHL has been promoting to vote on who the greatest team in the history of the NHL was. For a life-long NHL fan, this is one of the most interesting and fascinating conversations to have.
In my opinion, you can’t just take ONE team or ONE season. I mean, you can if you want to, but that’s not how I choose to break this down. A great TEAM is one that is consistently great over a period of time, not just dominant for one season. As we have seen recently with the Washington Capitals, having the best regular season record, even in consecutive seasons, means very little if you don’t win carry that success into the postseason.
I’m going to break this up into two categories. The greatest NHL team combining regular season and postseason success is the Montreal Canadiens starting from the 1975-76 season going through the 1978-79 Stanley Cup. Over that period of four seasons, the Canadiens won nearly 79 percent of their regular season games (.784). In case you didn’t read that correctly, let me write it again. THEY WON NEARLY 79 PERCENT OF THEIR REGULAR SEASON GAMES!!!! OVER FOUR SEASONS!!! That, my friend, is true dominance.
Names like Guy Lafleur, Larry Robinson, Rejean Houle, Jacques Lemaire, Yvan Cournoyer, Ken Dryden, Steve Shutt, Guy Lapointe, Serge Savard and Bob Gainey will live forever in NHL history. Nine Hall of Famers played on all four teams, 10 played all together (Rod Langway played in 45 games during the 1978-79 season).
However, that dominance would not mean enough if they didn’t win a few Stanley Cups, which they did, winning Lord Stanley’s prize in each of those seasons. They do have one slight caveat that prevents them from being the greatest team, hands down, of all-time. The playoff system during those seasons provided a bye for the teams that won their division, which Montreal did each season. That helped Montreal avoid a best-of-three Preliminary Round each of those seasons. During that time Montreal would go on to win 12 straight best-of-seven playoff series, with only one of those series going the full seven games (1979 Stanley Cup Semifinals vs Boston).
That brings me to the second team on this list.
In 1979-80, the NHL absorbed the Edmonton Oilers, Winnipeg Jets, Hartford Whalers and Qubec Nordiques from the WHA, bringing the total number of teams to 21. The playoff format also changed, adding four more teams and eliminating the bye for division winners. The preliminary round also changed from a best-of-three to a best-of-five.
Entering the 1979-80 season, the New York Islanders were the defending Presidents Trophy winners, finishing with the NHL best record in 1978-79. However, their postseason ended when the New York Rangers eliminated them in six games in the Stanley Cup Semifinals.
The 1979-80 season did not bring the same amount of regular season success to the Islanders, who finished with just 91 points. However, when the postseason began the Islanders finally did what they had failed to do in reaching each of the previous five postseasons and won their first Stanley Cup in franchise history. What it also started was the most remarkable postseason run in the history of professional sports.
Starting with their Preliminary Round win over the Los Angeles Kings in the 1980 postseason going through their elimination of the Montreal Canadiens in the 1984 Wales Conference Finals, the Islanders won 19 consecutive playoff series (including 14 consecutive best-of-seven series) spanning those 5 postseasons. What is also remarkable was that in NONE of those 14 best-of-seven series did the Islanders ever have to play a seventh game (they did however on two occasions have to play a fifth game in the Patrick Division Semifinals, which had replaced the Preliminary Round under the new divisional playoff format introduced in the 1981-82 season).
Those Islanders teams featured Hall of Famers Clark Gillies, Bryan Trottier, Mike Bossy (in my opinion the greatest goal scorer in NHL history), Denis Potvin and Billy Smith, along with NHL greats such as Butch Goring, Brent Sutter, Bob Bourne, Bob Nystrom and John Tonelli. By the way, my argument for Bossy begins and ends with his playoff goal scoring. Only Brett Hull has scored more PPG in NHL playoff history (Hull-38, Bossy-35) and only Mario Lemieux has a higher goals-per-game average than Bossy (Lemieux-.710, Bossy-.659). By the way, Hull scored his 38 PPG in 73 more playoff games than Bossy.
During the regular season over that five-year period, the Islanders won 65 percent of their games. Now that’s not as good as the Montreal Canadiens late 70s run, but it was over FIVE seasons, while the Canadiens span of winning was just FOUR seasons. However, that doesn’t diminish the domination of that Canadiens team in the least.
So which team was better? Well, that depends on what you think is more important. To me, winning 19 consecutive playoff series and playing that extra round is vital in comparing records. That would make the Islanders better. However, just look at the 9 Hall of Famers on those Canadiens team and the absolute dominance they displayed over those four seasons. On that scale, the Canadiens are better.
One thing is for sure however and that is it would be a GREAT, GREAT matchup. The one thing I really appreciated about that Islanders team is that they could beat you any way you wanted to play. If you wanted a fast game based on skill, they had Bob Bourne, Potvin, Bossy, Trottier and Tonelli. If you wanted to play physical and fight, they had Gillies, Nystrom and Gary Howatt. Not that the Canadiens didn’t have that ability (after all they did end the two-year run of the Philadelphia Flyers in the 1976 Stanley Cup Finals, one of the toughest teams ever), but they were just so skilled and fast that they would beat you mercilessly without having to fight.