NEWARK — It was inevitable. The first time Jim Montgomery had a dominant team in Black and Gold, the comparison was going to be made.
The 1993 Maine Black Bears, of which he was the captain, went 42-1-2.
His current squad hit the holiday break at 27-4-2.
It’s no longer a premature thought to wonder if Montgomery sees similarities with the NCAA championship team he played for and the Stanley Cup contender he currently coaches.
“The dominance part is very similar,” he said after Friday’s 4-3 win at New Jersey. “The fact we can go out and play any type of game and win it. We can be down and come back and win. We can be up and keep our foot on the gas pedal. There’s a lot of similarities. The veteran leadership of this group is similar to the veteran leadership — we had a lot of seniors that year.
“Those are the comparables. But this group’s doing it at the NHL level. It’s impressive.”
After Monday’s win over Florida, Montgomery noted that this unexpectedly fantastic run has given him a newfound ability to relax his grip on his players.
“It’s different from [any] team I’ve coached before, just because they are great leaders and they know how to win,” he said. “All the different ways we’ve won, it shows.
“I let them play through things more than I would other teams before I would either get on them verbally or maybe call a timeout, the things that you control as a coach.”
His coach at Maine, the late Shawn Walsh, trusted Montgomery enough to name him the solo captain, rather than the traditional cocaptains seen in college. In Boston, there is an unquestioned standard-bearer.
“[Walsh] knew that I was saying the right things about how we wanted to play, how we wanted to close out games,” Montgomery said. “I know the way Shawn and I spoke, Patrice [Bergeron] and I speak a lot. Obviously he’s a lot better captain than I ever was. I should listen to him.”
Bergeron has produced boatloads of indelible moments during his 19 seasons, but even he would tip his hat to his coach for what Montgomery did in the NCAA championship game in ‘93.
Monty the Montrealer put up a hat trick in the third period against Lake Superior State, off feeds from Paul Kariya, to erase a two-goal deficit and bring home a national title.
(It’s hard to imagine Bergeron going out in similar fashion this June — since he’s going to play at least a few more years, right?)
On the surface, the differences between the ‘93 Black Bears and ‘23 Bruins remain limited to the color of the mascot’s fur.
Both clubs had goalie tandems playing at a high level (Garth Snow and Mike Dunham, Linus Ullmark and Jeremy Swayman), all-world offensive forces (Kariya, David Pastrnak) and a home rink where they gain a superpower.
Maine was 17–1–2 at Alfond Arena. The Bruins, who host the Sabres on New Year’s Eve, are 18-0-2 at TD Garden.
It has had Montgomery reaching for his Rolodex, seeking counsel with the coaching luminaries he knows.
His desirable problem: Both the Bruins’ effort and execution are top notch, in practices and games. So how much should he push them? How much of a perfectionist should he be?
Over the phone, Scotty Bowman (who won a record nine Stanley Cups) told him to focus on details. Mike Babcock (one Cup) told him to pick one spot to push on, one area of improvement, and aim for perfection in that. Joel Quenneville (three Cups) told him to save his bullets.
“Let the boys play — there’s going to be time in the season when you’re going to face adversity, and when that comes, that’s when you’ll be able to get their attention again,” Montgomery said Quenneville told him. “He said, ‘Enjoy the ride.’ ”
That part hasn’t been a challenge.
In the dressing room in Newark late Friday night, Montgomery’s eyes lit up when informed of the following two stats:
At 5-on-5 this season, the ageless Bergeron has scored seven goals. Everyone playing against Bergeron has combined to score six goals.
And, the Bruins are first in the league at Christmas for the first time since 1973.
With 24 strikes through 33 games, Pastrnak is in range for his first 50-goal season, and 60 isn’t out of the question. He said his reunion with close pal and playmaker David Krejci is helping his readiness to shoot. The game is a bit slower with Krejci, compared with the faster-paced Brad Marchand-Bergeron partnership.
“Just playing and having a lot of fun and the puck’s going in,” said Pastrnak (24-23—47). “Big thing is the whole team is doing well. Helps to have the confidence. Every line is doing well. It helps you as an individual also.”
Pastrnak has landed 168 pucks on goal, most in the league, and only all-time gunner Alex Ovechkin has attempted more shots (310 to 307).
Devils in a rut
The Devils, who host the Bruins again Wednesday, were running second in the East for most of December. They are 1-6-1 in their last eight. Toronto and Carolina have passed them. Coach Lindy Ruff saw it as a market correction.
His team is no longer surprising opponents. He also doesn’t see much improvement.
“Teams figure out probably 20 games in who they are and what they need to get better at,” Ruff said. “The history of the league is, once you get through that, you know what you’ve got to get better at. You know what the good teams are doing.”
Getting to the front of the net — gaining the inside ice that was such a no-go for the Bruins at times under Bruce Cassidy — has been a challenge. Ruff, whose charges went nearly a month without losing (13-0-0 from Oct. 25 to Nov. 21) isn’t getting the easy goals anymore.
“It’s hard to win,” said forward Erik Haula, the ex-Bruin. “When you get to the top, you’re going to get everyone’s best game. It’s such a young team, so obviously all the experiences are great.”