The Montreal Canadiens won four Cups in a row from 1975-76 to 1978-79. The Edmonton Oilers won four Cups in five years from 1983-84 until 1987-88. These were two of the greatest dynasties in hockey history.
Who would win a seven-game series between these two great teams?
The Canadiens were certainly a deeper club. They had more scoring, better checkers and better defensemen. The Oilers were a team that depended on a few all-time great players to lead the way. Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier, Paul Coffey, Jarri Kurri, Glen Anderson and Grant Fuhr were the core of that Oiler dynasty. A few key players like Esa Tikkanen, Kevin Lowe and Craig Mactavish made large contributions, but the team revolved around and lived and died on those first six.
The rest of the cast were fighters, role players and usually an interchangeable offensive player.
Despite those weaknesses, the Oilers were an unstoppable offensive juggernaut of a squad. When they were winning Cups, they were outscoring the rest of the league by 40 to 80 goals. The Oilers lead the NHL in scoring from 1981-82 to1986-87, six straight NHL seasons. Those teams scored over 400 goals in a year five times. The next best offensive performance by an NHL team during a regular season was made by the 1970-71 Boston Bruins, who scored 399 goals. That was a pretty good offensive team in its own right, featuring record-setting performances by Phil Esposito and Bobby Orr.
As players were peeled out of the lineup and sold by the financially bereft Peter Pocklington, the Oilers could no longer do that. Coffey was traded away to the Pittsburgh Penguins before the 1987-88 season and went on to win a Stanley Cup with them. Wayne Gretzky was traded the next year to LA. The Oiler team that won the Cup in 1989-90 was only sixth in league scoring that season. Without Gretzky and Coffey they were a different kind of Cup champions than the dynasty team.
The Oilers were the most dominating offensive squad in NHL history. They were innovative. They incorporated many features of the European puck movement and puck possession game into their own. Their defense consisted of keeping the puck in their opponent's zone. When that failed, Grant Fuhr came to the rescue.
Grant Fuhr didn't lead the league in many categories at any time in his career, but he seemed to own the patent on heroic saves against odd-man rushes. One of the greatest reflex goalies of all time, Fuhr was a ball of energy who was a key component of the four Cup-winning teams in five years.
The Montreal Canadiens from 1976 to 1979 were an offensively talented squad that played a more conservative defense-first style. They had three scoring lines and one of the best checking lines in hockey. Throw in the big three on defense and Hall of Fame goaltender Ken Dryden and it's hard to imagine this squad losing to anyone.
Coach Scotty Bowman could-game plan against anyone. He designed a defensive game plan against the Soviet Red Army team for the New Year's Eve game in 1975 that clogged up the middle against that juggernaut of an offensive team and kept the play and puck possession hugely in the Canadiens' hands. Bowman was an innovator in his own right, and the 1977-78 power play was the most successful in NHL history.
All that said, the Edmonton Oilers of the mid-1980s played a new style of offense that the Montreal Canadiens, who dominated in a slightly more static NHL, would have trouble adapting to. The Montreal Canadiens team that played the Oilers in 1981 still had 17 players left over from their late-1970's dynasty team. At that age, with that group, and with Richard Sevigny in nets, they were dominated by the younger, faster Oilers. Certainly the team in its prime with all its members in place would have done better than that squad managed to.
The Oilers were a much more penalized team than the highly-disciplined Montreal Canadiens. Their aggressive penalty kill and unmatched four-on-four and even three-on-three play balanced that deficit out.
The 1980's Edmonton Oilers were a beatable squad. The Calgary Flames, with their coach "Badger" Bob Johnson, designed a team and a game plan to do just that. They used their big center and faceoff specialist Joel Otto to lean on Mark Messier, well, basically for his whole career. They banged the Oilers as much as they could. Their talented depth was always ready to outplay and outscore the Oilers' third and fourth lines. The Flames' power play made the Oilers pay for their indiscretions.
The Flames had been facing the Edmonton Oilers and Gretzky for years in the Smythe Division. That familiarity allowed them to better anticipate the unpredictable things those Oilers might do.
The Canadiens didn't really have the physical center to match up with Messier. Their power play would get burnt by Gretzky, Kurri, Tikkanen and Anderson until Bowman learned he couldn't use Lafleur or Shutt on the point as he occasionally liked to do.
Ken Dryden was a great goalie, but again, a great positional goalie whose big body cut off the angles. The Oilers, like the Russian national team in the mid-1970s, liked to move the puck past the angles. The instant the goalie got set, they moved the puck again. Dryden had huge problems versus the Russians during the 1972 series. The Canadiens dominated the Red Army team during their New Year's Eve game, but the game ended in a 3-3 tie, mostly because Dryden wasn't as good as the opposing goalie, Vladislav Tretiak. I'd expect a similar dynamic if he was matched against Grant Fuhr, whose greatest success always came in the biggest games. Fuhr was hugely successful versus the Russians in the Canada Cup tournaments in 1984 and 1987. He was also obviously always coming up big for Edmonton in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
I believe Scotty Bowman could design a game plan to beat the Oilers just like Badger Bob did. The question has to be how many runs at it would the hugely talented Canadiens have to take before they were successful with it? Familiarity certainly would have helped those 1970's Canadiens beat the 1980's Oilers, but it was obvious as late as 1981 they had no idea how good Gretzky and the Oilers were and would become.
I believe the new style of offense the mid-1980's Oilers brought to hockey would generally have been too much for those 1970's Canadiens.
I see the Oilers beating Montreal the first they would meet in a six- or seven-game series. If they played year after year, I think Gainey, Robinson et al would figure out the Oilers. Lambert, Tremblay and Risebrough would always outscore the Oiler third or fourth lines. Gretzky and company would bring too much offense from too many unexpected angles for the Canadiens to deal with. Once the Canadiens became familiar with these Oilers, I believe they could win one seven-game series against the Oilers. But I have to say, I believe in my heart of hearts that the offensive core and goaltending of the mid-1980's Oilers would be too much for the late 1970's Canadiens.
WINNER: Mid-1980's Edmonton Oilers