Stu Cowan: Jim Montgomery’s dominant Bruins buck NHL salary cap

While Boston could rewrite the league’s record book, the Montreal native is writing his own story about making the most of a second chance.

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This wasn’t supposed to happen in commissioner Gary Bettman’s salary-capped NHL.

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When Bettman locked out the players — again — resulting in the cancellation of the entire 2004-05 season, his goal was to bring in a hard salary cap to guarantee more money in the owners’ pockets while also creating parity within the league. When the 2005-06 season started, the salary cap was set at US$39 million per team and it has since grown to US$82.5 million this season.

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The salary cap allowed owners to protect themselves and their GMs from overspending, but the parity thing isn’t working this season when it comes to the Boston Bruins.

The Bruins beat the Canadiens 4-2 Tuesday night at the Bell Center, improving their record to 38-5-4 while becoming the fastest team in NHL history to reach the 80-point mark in the standings at 47 games. The Bruins had a 14-point lead atop the overall NHL standings after the game and were on pace to finish the season with 140 points, which would break the record of 132 set by the Canadiens in 1976-77, when they had a 60- 8-12 record en route to winning their second of four straight Stanley Cups.

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Bettman was at the Bell Center Tuesday and was asked before the game if he’s surprised by what the Bruins have been able to do in a salary-capped league.

“I think there was somebody in the Boston Globe who wrote an apology to the general manager over the weekend because the speculation was they weren’t going to be that good this year,” Bettman said. “Watching them it’s been amazing. They’re really playing great.”

Boston Globe columnist Christopher L. Gasper did indeed write an apology column to Don Sweeney for doubting the Boston GM’s plans heading into this season.

“I wanted to write to let you know that I was wrong about your ability to build a Stanley Cup contender,” Gasper wrote.

Gasper added: “This Bruins team you’ve built is a vulcanized-rubber wrecking ball. I’ve canceled all vacation plans for June, accordingly.”

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Gasper questioned Sweeney’s decision to fire head coach Bruce Cassidy after the Bruins lost to the Carolina Hurricanes in the first round of the playoffs last season, replacing him with Jim Montgomery.

“Now, I want to turtle like Claude Lemieux,” Gasper wrote. “Your Bruins look as unstoppable as Wayne Gretzky on a breakaway.”

Montgomery has a strong Montreal connection. He grew up in the city and started his hockey career as a novice player with the East End Boys’ Club. Montgomery and Canadiens GM Kent Hughes were teammates for one season with the St. Laurent Patriotes CEGEP team and Montgomery was the player the Canadiens acquired from the St. Louis Blues in summer 1994, when they traded captain Guy Carbonneau.

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Montgomery’s father, Jim Sr. — who died in 2015 — was president of a union at the east end Esso refinery where he worked and represented Canada as a boxer at the 1956 Olympics in Melbourne.

While the Bruins could rewrite the NHL record book, Montgomery is writing his own story about making the most of a second chance. He was fired as head coach of the Dallas Stars in 2019 for “unprofessional conduct” that Montgomery later revealed was related to his problems with alcohol and he entered a rehab program.

Bruins captain Patrice Bergeron said Montgomery is a great communicator who “always lets us know how he feels” and the coach let his players know how much Tuesday’s game meant to him as a homecoming.

“I watched so many of these rivalry games when I was young growing up,” Montgomery said before the game. “Obviously, at that time, I wasn’t cheering for the spoken B, but now I’m cheering hard for the spoken B. It will be fun. I will have a lot of family and friends here. Unfortunately, my 90-year-old mom (Dorothy) doesn’t want to deal with the stairs, so she’ll sit at home and criticize me later.”

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There hasn’t been much to criticize about the Bruins. After Tuesday’s game, they were tied for first in the NHL in offense, ranked first in defense, second on the power play and first in penalty-killing. Their goal differential of plus 83 was almost double the Dallas Stars, who ranked second at plus 42.

The comparisons have started with the 1976-77 Canadiens.

“I think how dominant we are at both ends of the ice,” Montgomery said when asked to compare the two teams. “We can score. We can win 6-5, we can win 1-0. I think those are the parallels. And then Montreal had three dominant defensemen (Larry Robinson, Serge Savard and Guy Lapointe), we have two dominant defensemen (Hampus Lindholm and Charlie McAvoy). When you have an elite D corp, you can really control the play at both ends of the ice. Those are the biggest comparables I see.”

The Globe’s Gasper likes what he has seen from the Bruins. He ended his apology column to Sweeney with: “See you at the parade.”

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