You might not have heard this, but the Boston Bruins are off to their best start since the 1976-77 season. Oh, you had heard that? Once or twice? Huh.
The mainstream media's obsession with trotting out the same statistic over and over notwithstanding, the Bruins' record this year is indeed impressive. 12-2-2 is nothing to look down your nose at, even though many pundits (and fans) feel like the B's have not yet started playing their best hockey. The question, as always, is can this sort of start be sustained over the course of a season, even a lockout-shortened one? The Bruins are not by any means the only team pondering this conundrum -- the (ridiculously good) Blackhawks, Ducks, and Canadiens are facing similar questions as the season begins to creep towards the halfway point.
We clearly can't predict the future (oh, if only), but we can reflect on the past, and dissect what lay ahead for that fast-starting Black and Gold squad of 36 years ago. It will probably correlate in absolutely NO WAY with what's happening this season, but since that record is becoming part of the dominant narrative for what today's Bruins are accomplishing thus far, let's get into the nitty gritty of what exactly went down in the yesteryear of 1976-77.
Right from the start, there was every reason to be optimistic that season would be a strong one for the Bruins. They were returning 20 skaters from the 1975-76 season (of course, Bobby Orr was one of the ones not returning, so, you know) in which the Bruins finished first in their division, and still had Hall of Fame goaltender Gerry Cheevers in net. The Esposito trade from the previous year seemed to be working out, as Brad Park continued to settle into his role as the pseudo-Orr replacement, and Johnny Bucyk carried on exerting his captain-ly will over the squad.
At the same time, however, the players and coach Don Cherry cautioned against unreasonable expectations. "We'll be alright...if we don't get hurt," Bucyk was quoted as saying, with Cherry adding "We don't have great depth." On top of that, there was a great deal of lingering fan resentment over the Orr situation, in which the Greatest Defenseman of All Time (tm) was let go for basically nothing. So going in to opening night on October 7th, 1976, feelings across the board were a bit of a mixed bag: would the Bruins be able to stay healthy enough to not test their questionable depth? Would the fans come back, or would the team be booed out of the Garden?
We all know the answer. The Bruins won that first contest against the Minnesota North Stars (RIP), and a shit-ton of games after. At the 16 game marker in the 1976-77 season, the Bruins had a 12-3-1 record, and 20 games in still had the best winning percentage in the league. Game number 16 was, fittingly, against those same New York Islanders that the B's trounced last night. At that November 11th game, the Bruins-Isles contest ended in a 2-2 deadlock, adding the "1" to the "tie" column for their season record to that point.
The big concern then -- as it should be now -- was a false sense of security in the team's winning ways. After 20 games, Don Cherry wondered if the team had won so much that it might be "developing a wee bit of complacency occasionally," which is a reasonable worry to have, especially since the good times couldn't last forever, obviously. For the 1976-77 team, the good times came to an end about game #23. That game, against the Maple Leafs, kicked off a bit of a shitty period at the end of November and into December, during which the Bruins lost 8 of 15, before returning to the ‘W' column with consistency starting in January.
Again, you absolutely cannot predict what might happen this season by looking at what happened in an earlier season. There are some eerie similarities between that 1976-77 season and this one, though, which makes for a fun bit of comparison for comparison's sake. For one, through the first 20 games in 1976, the Bruins were much better in second and third periods of a game, scoring 60 total goals in those periods while holding their opponents to 40. In the first 16 games of this year, they've scored 35 goals in the second and third, while allowing only 23 (this is even more impressive when one takes into account that *7* of those late period goals were in two games against the Sabres). In both seasons, then, the Bruins were able to dominate opponents by playing strong second halfs. They also both had stellar road records (6-3-0 and 8-1-1, respectively) and were winning far more of the close games than they were losing.
So how did it all end? Well, the 1976-77 season concluded with Bruins at the top of the Adams division, having acquired 106 points in 80 games played. They had a +72 goal differential, and they rode their exceptional start all the way to the Stanley Cup final, eventually losing to the Habs, booo. (Side note: a Canadiens-Bruins SC Final sounds so dreamy. Bring it on, realignment.)
Will this season's squad see similar results? Damned if I know. The team's fancy metrics suggest that the current lineup isn't punching way above it's weight (Brad "10 goals" Marchand aside), so there's no reason to think there will be a dramatic fall off (a la last year's Minnesota Wild). More importantly, however, the lesson here is that this "best start in 36 years" streak the Bruins are on provides a bit of a cushion for when the team inevitably has its rocky stretches. Had the 1976-77 season ended after 48 games, despite losing a bunch of games in December, the Bruins would have had a 30-14-4 record, which is, as they say, not bad.
This Bruins team would have to win the next 6 games in regulation to match the record set by the 1976-77 squad. At the end of the day, though, if that record-setting season tell us anything, it's that a good team with a strong start -- like the one Boston's having now -- is a whole heck of a lot of fun to watch. Sit back and enjoy the ride, baby.