The period of the late 1980s and early 1990s was one where the Boston Bruins enjoyed steady success, even if they couldn’t settle on a coach. They made the Finals in 1988 and 1990, each time under a different coach. They reached the conference finals in 1991. The 1992 Boston Bruins came into the season with their third coach of the last five years. Rick Bowness again got them to a conference finals.
Boston’s best player was the all-time great defenseman Ray Borque, although he didn’t have a vintage year in ‘92. He got offensive support from Vladimir Ruzicka and Stephen Leach, who combined to score 70 goals.
It took the Bruins a little while to get rolling and that included making some mid-season personnel changes. They were barely over .500 at the New Year, before winning eight of nine games moved them decisively to the winning side of the ledger. They stumbled again in February, losing five of six. But they also beat the defending champion Pittsburgh Penguins and more importantly, got some help.
Boston acquired center Adam Oates, a future Hall of Famer, with Craig Janney—a nice, above-average player—being the best part of the package they gave up. Oates’ contract problems in St. Louis had made him available and the Bruins were a big winner. It wouldn’t pay immediate dividends—Boston still finished the regular season a pedestrian 36-32-12. They were at or below the league middle in both scoring and defense. But they had the horses to be a threat in the playoffs.
The NHL playoffs were strictly division-based in 1992. The top four teams from each division qualified and played amongst each other for the first two rounds. The Adams Division, were the Bruins resided, had the weaker teams—away from the Penguins and away from the East’s top two regular seasons, the New York Rangers and Washington Capitals.
Instead, the sub-.500 Buffalo Sabres awaited in the first round. Buffalo had a pretty good offense, with five players who scored over 30 goals during the regular season. That included passer extraordinaire Dale Hawerchuck, and was led by Pat Fontaine, who lit the lamp 46 times. But the Sabres were one of the league’s worst defensive teams.
That soft Buffalo defense came ready to play in Game 1, as Boston dug themselves a 3-0 hole and couldn’t climb out, en route to a 3-2 loss. The Bruins attacked in Game 2, with 42 shots and pulled out a 3-2 overtime win to tie the series. Borque scored a goal and passed for two assists in another 3-2 victory in Game 3. And the Bruins took firm control of the series when they won the fourth game, 5-4 in overtime, in spite of only getting 19 shots on goal.
But that bad Sabre defense showed up ready to go in the Garden for Game 5 and the Bruins were shut out 2-0. Boston goalie Andy Moog then endured a disastrous Game 6, being yanked early in a 9-3 loss. The entire season was down to one game. Moog bounced back with a strong showing. In a 2-2 tie with 8:20 to play, Dave Reid scored the goal that sent the Bruins into the Division Finals.
A familiar foe, the Montreal Canadiens awaited. The Canadiens didn’t have a lot of offensive firepower. They only ranked 14th in a 21-team league in goals scored. They only had one 30-goal scorer in Kirk Muller and only one future Hall of Famer—center Denis Savard, a small number in a league that’s generous in how many it inducts into its Hall.
What Montreal could do was play defense and that started with one of the greatest goalies in the history of the sport. Patrick Roy was in net and anchored the unit that led the league in goal prevention. The other thing the Canadiens had established was an ability to beat the Bruins, going 5-2-1 in the regular season rivalry games.
But Montreal, like Boston, had struggled with a lesser opponent in the first round, needing all seven games to dispatch the Hartford Whalers (today’s Carolina Hurricanes). And the Bruins peppered Roy in the opener. Leach scored two goals to lead the way in a 6-4 win. Game 2 was a grinding defensive game with neither team getting more than 25 shots. It should have been tailor-made for Roy, especially when he had a 2-1 lead in the final five minutes. But Dave Poulin scored to tie it, the Bruins won in overtime and came home in command of the series.
Another defense-first game followed in Game 3 and once again it was Moog winning the battle with Roy in a 3-2 win. The Bruin goalie delivered again in Game 4. Boston clung to a 1-0 lead thanks to second period goal from Poulin, as Moog kept turning the Canadiens away. Finally, an empty-net goal sealed the 2-0 win and the Bruins were going to the Eastern Conference Finals.
Pittsburgh had been up-and-down in the regular season, but Mario Lemieux’s defending champs had put it together in the playoffs, ousting both the Capitals and Rangers. The Penguins still had the best offense in the league, including All-Star forward Kevin Stevens and his 54 regular season goals. Joe Mullen was another 40-goal scorer in black-and-gold, while Mark Recchi lit the lamp 39 times.
That was too much firepower for Boston to handle. In spite of outshooting Pittsburgh 41-31 in the opener and leading in the thrid period, the Bruins lost in overtime. Moog gave up five goals on just 23 shots in a Game 2 loss. Stevens was unstoppable in Game 3, beating the Bruin goalie four times in a 5-1 final. Another 5-1 loss in Game 4 ended a series where the Bruins were outscored 19-7.
It had still been a strong playoff run and marked the fourth time in five years that Boston had reached the conference finals. They were only losing postseason series to teams led by names like Gretzky (1988), Messier (1990) and Lemieux (1991-92). That should have pointed to the need for patience.
But patience was definitely not a trait of NHL teams in this time period and it’s never been a trait of Boston sports. Another coaching change was made and this latest spin of the carousel was too much—the franchise would not make it back to the conference finals for nearly twenty years, in the Stanley Cup year of 2011.