By: Tim Dumas | Follow me on Twitter @TimDumas
One of the NHL’s most dominant teams was nearly more so if not for Rick Middleton and the Boston Bruins. The Montreal Canadiens of 1976-77 set the standard for greatness in the sport, piling up 132 points and outscoring opponents by an aggregate of 216 goals, records that still stand. They opened the regular season with a 10-1 win over Pittsburgh and defeated Washington 11-0 in their home finale.
The Bruins were the only team to have a winning record against the Canadiens that season, winning three of the five regular-season matchups. Middleton was in the first of his 12 seasons with the Bruins that year and helped the B’s defeat Montreal in each of their first three meetings.
But the playoffs were a different story. Middleton was reminded of that year in a phone conversation on March 23r and quickly interjected when the subject came up.
“I was on the team that lost the Cup in ‘77 to them, so I remember that season,” he said with a half chuckle. “They only lost one game at home: guess to who?”
The recollections of the man they call “Nifty” are correct. The Canadiens went 33-1-6 at home that season, and the only setback was to the Bruins, 4-3, at the Montreal Forum on October 30, 1976. Middleton assisted on the goal that put the Bruins ahead to stay as Mike Millbury beat the mighty Ken Dryden late in the first period.
The current Bruins are chasing that team again, closing in on the 132-point standard that has held up for more than 45 years. The Canadiens did so in an 80-game season – losing just eight times – in an era without regular-season overtime or shootouts; teams split two points in games that ended in ties.
When asked what made Montreal so great that season, Middleton, 69, pointed to the obvious.
“Well, half of them are in the Hall of Fame,” he said. “That had a lot to do with it. (Guy) LaFleur, (Steve) Shutt, (Jacques) Lemaire – that was one line. (Yvon) Cournoyer, (Larry) Robinson, Dryden – you can go on and on and on. In any sport, it’s hard to beat talent. You can try; you have to play a perfect game in order to do that.”
Of the 17 skaters on that Montreal team that played at least 60 games, are in the Hall of Fame. Dryden, who won the Vezina Trophy in ‘77 after winning 41 games and compiling a 2.14 goals against average, is also in the Hall. Shutt (60), LaFleur, and Lemaire combined for 150 regular-season goals as the Canadiens went 12-2 in the playoffs (just three rounds then), including a sweep of the Bruins in the finals.
With nine games remaining, today’s Bruins are just 13 points away from matching the Canadiens’ record point total. When asked if he wants to see his former team top that mark, Middleton did not hesitate. But he also knows bigger goals await once the playoffs begin in mid-April.
“Oh, gosh, of course. I think they deserve it,” Middleton, who lives in Hampton, New Hampshire, said of the points record. “They haven’t done it in spurts, and they’ve avoided the dry spells. It would be great, and I’m sure they’re trying, and if it happens, it happens. But the ultimate goal is the Cup. You don’t want to be going after too many goals. If they play the way they’re playing and they keep winning, they’ll break the record. It’s as simple as that.”
Middleton retired in 2022 as president of the Boston Bruins Alumni Association after serving 15 years in that position. (Frank Simonetti is the current president). He no longer skates in alumni games due to recent back and knee surgeries.
But Middleton follows the current Bruins as much as possible through his FuboTV account. His take on the team’s play this season mirrors that of many fans.
“The great start that they had, and they were winning all of those games early; I don’t think anybody saw that coming,” he said. “It seems that (coach Jim Montgomery) was using the third and fourth lines quite a bit more, and they were scoring early in the game, which gave the team a big lift. It takes a lot of pressure off the top two lines if your third and fourth lines are pitching in, and that’s what you need to win Stanley Cups and go deep in the playoffs. Not only that, but the goaltending has been stellar.
“The only skids that they’ve had is when their offense dries up a little bit, and the power play may not be working.”
Middleton played 12 seasons with the Bruins, scoring at least 40 goals in five consecutive seasons from 1979-80 to 1983-84. He is fourth on the team’s goal-scoring list with 402 and holds the league record for points in a playoff series (19, against Buffalo in ‘82-83). He retired after the ‘87-88 season with 988 career points, also fourth in Bruins history.
Nearly 30 years later, the team retired his No. 16 jersey on November 29, 2018, the 11th player to have his number sent to the TD Garden rafters. When asked if the Hall of Fame might come calling next, Middleton quickly batted down the idea.
“No. I didn’t think the Bruins would be either, and that was a total surprise,” he said. “The Hall of Fame is a different animal.
“Having my number retired in Boston is enough for me. To be amongst those names up there, in almost a hundred years (of Bruins history), it’s an honor I’ve never dreamed of.”