The 1982 Boston Bruins Miss A Playoff Opportunity

The 1982 Boston Bruins enjoyed a strong regular season and the playoff bracket appeared to open up in a way to allow a deep playoff run. But the Bruins still went home fairly early in the spring and continued the pattern from the previous two years.

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Boston had reached the Stanley Cup Finals in 1977 and 1978 before losing to Montreal, and lost again to the rival Canadiens in the 1979 semifinals. The Bruins were the second-best team in hockey. That changed in 1980 and 1981 as they began exiting the playoffs quickly. Gerry Cheevers was in his second year as head coach as he tried to get Boston back up near the top and he had instability at goalie to contend with.

The Bruins had one veteran goalie in Rogie Vachon and a 22-year-old in Marco Baron. The goaltenders played well enough to anchor the fourth-best scoring defense in the NHL, although a crew of defenseman led by two future Hall of Famer in Ray Borque and Brad Park didn’t hurt. In any case, neither goalie would be in net by the time the playoffs began.

Borque was a first-team All-Star at the age of 21. Rick Middleton led the offense with 51 goals and 43 assists and was named a second-team All-Star. Barry Pederson, the 20-year-old center was similarly versatile offensively, scoring 44 goals and passing for 48 assists. Peter McNab added 36 & 40, also at the center spot. Terry O’Reilly was the team’s enforcer in the finest tradition of the Boston Irish.

The Bruins had a so-so start and were 12-7-4 at Thanksgiving. On the Saturday after the holiday, they beat the two-time defending Stanley Cup champion New York Islanders 5-4. That started a stretch where Boston won five of six and they reached the New Year with a record of 22-10-4.

For the rest of the season the Bruins were a model of consistency. They had a couple of three-game win streaks and lost three in a row once. Otherwise, Boston’s “streaks” stopped at two either way. They finished the season at 43-27-10. It was a good second in the Adams Division (essentially the Northeast) and was fourth-best in the league overall.

The Bruins trailed only the Edmonton Oilers (with Wayne Gretzky), the Islanders (two-time defending champs) and Montreal (two years removed from a dynasty). Boston was a contender based on the regular season, but the NHL is about validating that in the playoffs.

The NHL made a drastic change in its postseason structure. Previously, the league had a completely open format, with teams seeded without regard to conference affiliation. Now they want to the opposite extreme. The 16 teams were rigidly chosen, with four per division advancing (usually meaning one team per division got eliminated). The teams were then seeded 1-4 for a divisional tournament, with the winners advancing to the conference finals, and then the Stanley Cup Finals.

The Bruins were also going through changes at goalie. Nineteen-year-old Mike Moffat had played precisely two games in his NHL career. He would only play 15 more in the two seasons that followed this. But he was the man in net for virtually all of the 1982 playoffs, apparently because of his play those final two games.

Boston met the Buffalo Sabres in a first round that was then best-of-five. An old friend was waiting for them. Scotty Bowman had coached Montreal in their Cup runs past Boston and he had taken the Buffalo job in midseason. The Sabres had the third-best defense in the league, with Don Edwards the anchor at goalie and John Van Boxmeer a talented defenseman who finished with 54 assists.

The Bruins took the opener 3-1 and then cracked the defense wide open with a 7-3 win in Game 2. They went to Buffalo and dropped Game 3 5-2, but were able to quickly turn around and clinch the series in Game 4 by the same score.

Boston also got a big break—their nemesis Montreal was eliminated and the Quebec Nordiques, and their mediocre record of 33-31-16, and mediocre defense advanced to the second round. The Bruins were now the favorite to reach the conference finals and get a crack at the Islanders, who looked vulnerable themselves in getting pushed the full five games by the lowly Pittsburgh Penguins.

What the Nordiques could do was score. Peter Stastny finished with 46 goals and 93 assists, the third-highest point total in the league. Stastny trailed only Gretzky and Mike Bossy of the Islanders. And Stastny had plenty of help, including with his brother Marian, who scored 35 goals. Real Cloutier scored 37 goals and handed out 60 assists. Michael Goulet was a 40-goal scorer.

Boston looked in control in the first two games at the Garden, winning a close 4-3 game and then a decisive 8-4 one. But they slipped when the series went to Quebec, dropping a 3-2 overtime decision that made it a series again, and then falling apart in a 7-2 loss. A return home didn’t help in a 4-3 loss that had the Bruins on the brink.

It took overtime to get the series back home, but the Bruins did it in a 6-5 win in Game 6. It was all there in Game 7, and they held the potent Nordiques to two goals in the decisive game. But the B’s only scored once themselves. The season was over and in very disappointing fashion.

Boston would make it deeper into the playoffs in 1983, going to the conference finals. But it wouldn’t be until 1988, with Enforcer O’Reilly the head coach by then, that the Bruins made it back to the Stanley Cup Finals. And it would be 2011 until they finally hoisted the Cup.