The 1985 Boston Bruins came into the season looking for redemption. A strong 1984 regular season had flamed out with an immediate playoff collapse. The redemption bid never caught fire. The ’85 Bruins were hampered by injuries, played mediocre hockey and though they flirted with a playoff revival, it wasn’t enough.
Barry Pederson was Boston’s rising star and best scorer. But early in this season he was diagnosed with a tumor in his shoulder. The tumor was benign, but shoulder surgery on an athlete is anything but. Pederson missed virtually all of this season and was never the same player when he returned.
Pete Peeters had given the Bruins goaltending that was always reliable and occasionally spectacular. Playing for Team Canada in international competition, he injured his ankle. When he came back from that, hand injuries and even neurological problems followed. Peeters ended up playing part-time, with Doug Keans getting the season’s most meaningful starts in net.
There was still talent in the Bruin lineup and it started with defenseman Ray Borque. A first-team All-Star in 1985, Borque passed for 66 assists and ended twenty goals from the back end. His fellow defenseman, Mike O’Connell, was a good passer who dished out 40 assists.
Rick Middleton led an offense that had four thirty-goal scorers, including Tom Fergus, Keith Crowder and Charlie Simms. Ken Linseman was a reliable offensive threat. But in an era when hockey games were higher-scoring than is the case today, the absence of Pederson was tough to overcome. Boston’s offense was a mediocre 12th in a 21-team NHL for goals scored.
With Borque and O’Connell keying the defense and Keans playing respectable hockey in net, Boston did finish sixth defensively. But it wasn’t enough to get them past mediocrity. They were narrowly over .500 for the entire season and finished with a record of 36-34-10. In their 24 games against key divisional rivals from Montreal, Buffalo and Quebec (today’s Colorado franchise), the Bruins went 8-12-4.
But the NHL format was even more generous then that it is today. The league was split into four divisions and the top four in each qualified for the playoffs. In the five-team Adams Division, Boston only needed to beat out one rival. And the Hartford Whalers (today’s Carolina Hurricanes) were that team. The Bruins consistently had the Whalers at arm’s length and Boston’s ultimate participation in the playoffs was never in serious doubt.
Their archrival, the Montreal Canadiens were the opponent. A Boston-Montreal battle, especially in the playoffs, is always heated. For the Bruins this one had the added element of revenge. It was the Canadiens, who followed up a mediocre fourth-place finish in 1984 by upsetting Boston in the first round of the playoffs. Now the Bruins had a chance to return the favor.
Montreal was only marginally better than Boston statistically, ranking 10th on offense and 4th on defense. Mats Naslund and Mario Tremblay were their leading scorers. The Canadiens had Hall of Famers at defenseman, but each at opposite ends of their career. Chris Chelios was still young, at 23. Larry Robinson, a key part of the late 1970s dynasty run was 33. Guy Carbonneau, a future Hall of Famer at center, had a modest 23 goals/34 assists line in 1985.
Boston went up to Bell Centre and came out firing, grabbing a 3-0 lead in Game 1. Montreal rallied to tie the game 3-3 by the third period, but Crowder and Middleton each scored to close out the 5-3 win. O’Connell finished with a goal and two assists. The Bruins had drawn first blood in a first round that was then a best-of-five affair.
After a scoreless first period in Game 2, the balanced Boston attack nudged them out to a 3-2 lead going into the third period. But the Canadiens played with desperation, scored three times and got their own 5-3 win to even the series.
Returning home to the old Boston Garden didn’t inspire the Bruins. They gave up three goals in the first nine minutes of Game 3. The offense never got any real rhythm and the leading shot-taker on a team with a number of good threats ended up being Dave Reid. The result was a 4-2 loss.
When Boston trailed the fourth game 4-1 after a period, they looked ready to go quietly into the offseason. But in a furious second period, they scored five times and pulled even 6-6. The goalies finally got things settled down in the third period. It was Linseman who delivered the game-winner, his second goal of the night sealing a 7-6 win.
After the offensive fireworks of Game 4, the goalies restored order in Game 5. Keans and Montreal counterpart Steve Penney were both locked in and the game was scoreless deep into the third period. Where the difference came is that the Canadiens were getting their best offensive players—Naslund and Tremblay consistent looks at the net. With 0:51 left, Naslund broke through with the goal that beat Boston 1-0.
It was a tough end to a disappointing season and if you’re looking for a happy ending down the line, you won’t find it here. Boston still had two more years of first-round playoff exits ahead of them, before finally getting out of the rut with their 1988 run to the Finals.