The 1970s were a time of great success for the Boston Bruins. They won a couple Stanley Cups and routinely advanced deep into the postseason. Given that, losing in the quarterfinals of the playoffs in 1980 was a little disappointing, even if it was to the eventual Stanley Cup champion New York Islanders. The 1981 Boston Bruins unfortunately showed that the early exit was no fluke, nor simply the result of a bad draw.
The Bruins had good scorers. Rick Middleton was an up-and-comer that would be the franchise’s best player in the years to come. He scored 44 goals in 1981. Peter McNab rang up 39 goals. And the quintet of Wayne Cashman, Ray Borque, Steve Kasper, Dwight Foster and Don Marcotte formed a nice coalition of 20-plus goal scorers. Boston ranked ninth in the league for goals scored.
Borque was 20-years-old and the future Hall of Famer was the rising star in that group. As a defenseman, his biggest value came at the other end of the ice. Borque, along with the great 32-year-old veteran Brad Park, keyed a defense that was the best in the league at limiting shots.
The quality team defense covered up for subpar goaltending. Veteran Rogie Vachon was the primary goalie, and 23-year-old Jim Craig—fresh off his heroics for the 1980 U.S. Olympic team—got some starts. Neither were very good, but with limited exposure, the Bruins ranked sixth in goals allowed.
Boston won two of their first three, including a 3-2 win over archrival Montreal. But late October and early November were a disaster. A road trip west resulted in an 0-8-1 stretch. Even though the Bruins stabilized after that, they were still sub-.500 at 13-16-7 when the New Year arrived.
After the first two games after the calendar flipped resulted in two more losses, Boston finally played their first sustained stretch of good hockey. They went 9-2-1 for the balance of January. That included a 6-4 win over a good Philadelphia Flyers team and February opened with a win over the Islanders.
Another western swing came in February and this one went better. The Bruins went 3-1-1 and knocked off Wayne Gretzky’s up-and-coming Edmonton Oilers 5-1. Boston continued to play good, consistent hockey for the balance of the regular season and finished at 37-30-13.
The playoff format for the NHL was completely wide open—there were no division or conference distinctions. The best 16 teams of a then 21-team league qualified and they were simply seeded 1 thru 16.
Boston was squarely in the middle of the playoff bracket, with their 87 points tying them with the Minnesota North Stars (today’s Dallas Stars) for the 8-seed. The Bruins had more wins than the North Stars (37-35) and a 2-1-1 record in head-to-head play. The first round series that was then best-of-five would begin in Boston Garden.
Minnesota had offensive problems, with 30-goal scorer Steve Payne being the only legitimate offensive threat. Defensively, they were similar to Boston, ranking fifth in goals allowed. The difference was in how the North Stars achieved their defensive success. While the Bruins relied on limiting shots, Minnesota had above-average goaltenders in Don Beaupre and Gillis Meloche.
That difference in the means of defensive success would define this series. Boston was able to take a 4-3 lead midway into the third period of Game 1, thanks to two goals from McNab. But Vachon was exposed to 40 shots. The North Stars tied the game in regulation, then won it 5-4 in overtime.
Vachon collapsed in the second period of Game 2, when a 3-3 tie turned into a 6-3 deficit and ended up as a 9-6 loss. Game 3 out in the Twin Cities went no better. A pace that continued to be fast and furious, with goalies exposed to constant attack, saw Vachon give up four goals in the first period. The Bruins never really got close in a 6-3 loss that ended the season.
The 1970s had seen Boston routinely reach at least the semifinals, often the Finals and occasionally win it all. The 1980s would be different. 1981 was the first of five first-round exits that would torment Beantown in this decade. They mixed in a conference finals trip in 1983, but it wasn’t until the end of the decade—1988—that this great hockey city tasted the Finals again.