After three straight first-round exits in the playoffs, the 1987 Boston Bruins were ready to make some changes. They did, and in time those changes bore good fruit. But in the short-term they weren’t able to get the franchise off its frustrating pattern of early postseason exits.
Boston made their first big change shortly after getting swept out of the playoffs in 1986 by eventual Stanley Cup champion Montreal. The Bruins traded Barry Pederson. Once a rising star, Pederson’s game had been dragged down by injuries. The Vancouver Canucks were willing to bet that Pederson could return to greatness and Boston sent him west.
In return, the Bruins got a 21-year-old kid named Cam Neely. His first year in Boston saw Neely lead the team in scoring with 36 goals. He made the Hall of Fame. He eventually went on to become team president, a job he still holds today after overseeing three trips to the Stanley Cup Finals and a title in 2011. It’s fair to say this trade worked out pretty well for the Bruins.
Rick Middleton bounced back after an injury-plagued ’86 and scored 31 goals. Tom McCarthy was a 30-goal scorer. Charlie Simmer nearly was, lighting the lamp 29 times. Keith Crowder and Steve Kasper gave the lineup some additional punch. After a 1986 that was marred by offensive mediocrity, these ’87 Bruins finished sixth in the league in goals scored.
None of these players were the team’s best though. That honor belonged to the great defenseman Ray Borque. The future Hall of Famer was a first-team All-Star. His 72 assists ranked second in the NHL only to the great Wayne Gretzky. He keyed a defense that also ranked sixth in the NHL.
Boston split their goaltending duties. Doug Keans was the veteran, with a mediocre 88.1% save rate. Bill Ranford was the up-and-comer, whose 89.1% save rate ranked sixth in the league.
Butch Goring, once a part of the New York Islanders dynasty earlier in the 1980s, was making the transition to coaching and he was in his second year behind the bench for the Bruins. Not for long. Thirteen game in, Goring was fired and Terry O’Reilly was brought on.
O’Reilly had been the enforcer for Bruin teams in the 1970s and this was a team that needed some fire. The final two games under Goring saw consecutive losses to the Buffalo Sabres by the combined score of 15-4. When those games happened the Sabres had already fired the legendary Scotty Bowman as their own head coach and were en route to the worst record in the league.
Boston got back on track with seven straight wins in early December, although they gave most of it back towards the end of the month with five straight losses. The Bruins reached the New Year at 16-16-4.
If nothing else, the playoff format of this era was exceptionally generous. The same 16 teams that qualify today made the postseason then—but with only 21 teams in the league, it was awfully hard to miss. The top four in each division qualified, meaning Boston needed to beat just one team in the five-team Adams Division. With Buffalo playing so poorly, there was little doubt which Adams team was going to be staying home in the spring.
And the Bruins started to play some good hockey again in January. A seven-game win streak included wins over all four divisional rivals—Hartford (today’s Carolina Hurricane), Montreal, Quebec (today’s Colorado Avalanche) and woeful Buffalo. The Boston record nudged up to 26-20-5 going into February.
Inconsistency reared its ugly head again and a six-game losing streak included defeats to all four divisional rivals. But the Bruins were able to recover sufficiently to finish the season with a winning record at 39-34-7. They were comfortably ahead of not just Buffalo, but also fourth-place Quebec who was submerged under .500.
Each of the previous three years had seen Boston taken out of the playoffs by their archrival from Montreal. With the postseason bracket being strictly division-based for the first two rounds, there was always an opportunity for revenge. 1987 saw another installment of Bruins-Canadiens in the first round.
Montreal wasn’t as good as they had been in their Cup run of 1986. With key scorers Mats Naslund, Bobby Smith and Guy Charbonneau having down years, the Canadiens offense was one of the worst in the league.
But they could play defense. Larry Robinson, 35-years-old and a veteran of the late 1970s Montreal Dynasty was still on hand. So was Chris Chelios, a rising star at defenseman that would be in the Hall of Fame. And the young goalie, a guy named Patrick Roy, was already an established star.
Keans got the start in net for Boston to open the series and it didn’t go well. The Bruins were quickly in a 3-0 hole and lost Game 1 by a 6-2 count. Ranford got the start in Game 2 and fell behind quickly 2-0.
Neely countered with two goals to tie the game. When the Canadiens went ahead 3-2, Neely completed his hat trick to tie it up again and force overtime. But Naslund got the last word and Montreal won 4-3.
If nothing else, the NHL had expanded its first round from best-of-five to best-of-seven for 1987, so Boston was guaranteed to get both of its home games for the middle part of the series.
In the third game, with Keans back in net, Middleton gave the Bruins their first lead of the series at 1-0. But Montreal scored three straight times. Middleton scored again. So did Borque and Neely
But Keans couldn’t hold down the previously woeful Canadien offense. Mike McPhee, a mostly non-descript forward, went off for the hat trick for Montreal. The result was a 5-4 loss.
Neely gave Boston a 2-1 lead in the second period Game 4 with a goal. Ranford had the chance to hold the lead. But the goalie-switching never produced a hot hand. The Canadiens scored twice in the second period to get the lead. McPhee sealed it with a third-period goal. The 4-2 loss ended another Boston season early.
Four straight first-round losses, each one to your most hated rivalry. Three of them ending in sweeps. There was no sugar-coating this era of Boston Bruins history. The only positive is that Neely was in town and better days were ahead—the franchise would make the Finals in 1988 and again in 1990.