The 1988 Boston Bruins were a franchise stuck in a rut—yes, they were making the playoffs, but in the era of the NHL were 16 of 21 teams qualified for postseason play that hardly constituted a big deal. The Bruins had lost in the first round each of the previous four seasons. They hadn’t won the Stanley Cup since 1972, nor made the Finals since consecutive losses to the Montreal Canadiens in 1977 and 1978. Even the conference finals had eluded the Bruins since 1983. A city that loved its hockey, and was witnessing the decline of the Bird-era Celtics in the spring of 1988, needed its NHL team to stand up.
Boston was a young team, with its Top 10 scorers all under the age of 30. The best of them all was defenseman Ray Borque, one of the game’s all-time greats and very much in his prime at age 27. Borque dished 64 assists and led the team in points from his spot on the back line. Centers Ken Linseman and Steve Kasper were able passers, and the main scorer was 22-year-old Cam Neely, a man who would go on to a stellar career in Boston, both on the ice and in the front office. The Bruins were seventh in the league in scoring, utilizing a balanced attack and in spite of not having a premier goaltender, Borque’s presence on the defensive side helped lead them to the NHL’s third-best showing in goal prevention.
The season started off up-and-down, and the Bruins were 6-7-2 when a seven-game winning streak gave them some cushion. They played steady and consistent hockey through the end of January and stood at 29-19-5 when a five-game win streak opened up further room in their quest to at least get home-ice for the first round of the playoffs.
The season’s toughest stretch came in March when they endured 1-6-1 segment of eight games, but a four-game win streak towards the end of the season re-established some momentum going into the playoffs. Boston finished second in the old Adams Division (the divisions used to be named the Adams, Patrick, Norris & Smythe) and was primed to go into the postseason.
Boston hosted Buffalo to start their first-round battle and the B’s offense opened up, outscoring the Sabres 11-4 in the first two games and grabbing early command of the series. But a decisive loss on the road in Game 3 was followed by an overtime loss in Game 4. The home fans rallied Boston to a 5-4 win in Game 5 and then they finally took care of business in Buffalo, clinching the series with a 4-1 victory in Game 6.
Now it was time for archrival Montreal, who’d won the division title and held home-ice advantage. A 5-2 Canadiens win in Game 1 seemed to signify that the franchise who was to the city of Boston in hockey what the New York Yankees were in baseball, was about to stomp the Bruins down all over again. But 1988 was different—a year that would see the Red Sox outlast the Yankees and win the AL East, also saw the Bruins completely take over from the Canadiens. The B’s won three straight hard-fought games and then went back onto enemy ice in Game 5 for another 4-1 clinching win.
The hurdle of winning a playoff series had been overcome. So had that of getting to the conference finals. Now it was the upstart New Jersey Devils who stood in the way for Boston’s return to hockey’s biggest stage. The Devils had made a coaching change with thirty games left in the regular season, and a 17-12-1 finish under Jim Schoenfield gave them momentum for the playoffs, even if they’d finished fourth in the Patrick Division. New Jersey upset the New York Islanders in the first round, then went the seven-game distance to beat the Washington Capitals and get to the finals in the Prince of Wales Conference (basically today’s Eastern Conference).
New Jersey hadn’t been able to get consistent goaltending all year, trying veterans Bob Sauvre and Alan Chevrier, as well giving a few games to 21-year-old Sean Burke. The Devils tried the veteran Sauvre in Game 1 at Boston Garden, but it didn’t pay off. Boston’s balanced offense had five different players lighting the lamp and the Bruins won 5-3. New Jersey switched to Burke and the kid came up big in Game 2, saving 39 of 41 shots, and New Jersey won a 3-2 overtime game.
In more recent history, Boston fans have seen a previously unknown goalie do big damage in a playoff series—I’m thinking of 2012 and Washington’s 21-year-old Braden Holtby, who was thrown into the fire and keyed an upset win in a seven-game series. But New Jersey, for some reason, returned to Sauve in Game 3 and the Bruins made them pay. Borque dished out three assists, Linseman scored twice and the final was 6-1, as Boston reclaimed home ice advantage. Burke went back in the net for Game 4 and saved 33 of 34 shots. New Jersey won 3-1 and surely had its fans wondering what might have been the case had Burke at least been in the net for Game 3.
Nothing lasts forever though, and Boston got the kid goalie figured out with the season reduced to a best-of-three battle for the Finals. In Game 5 back at the Garden, Bob Joyce scored two goals, Borque’s stellar passing continued with two assists and the B’s schooled Burke in a 7-1 win. They were able to keep peppering Burke in Game 6 for three goals, but their own goaltending fell apart on the road. Reggie Lemelin, inconsistent all year, had to be pulled after giving up five goals on thirteen shots and a 6-3 New Jersey win set up a Game 7.
The prospect of kicking away a Finals trip to a fourth-place team and a goalie who’d only played six regular season games loomed for Boston. But Borque was in the house. His defense limited Lemelin’s exposure to just 19 shots. His passing set up two more goals and the overall Boston attack hit Burke with 30 shots and the kid couldn’t recapture the magic of Games 2 & 4. Boston rolled to a 6-2 win, and after ten years, were going back to the Stanley Cup Finals.
Boston didn’t hoist the Cup—that honor would wait until 2011—but in the era of Wayne Gretzky and the Edmonton Oilers it was tough for anyone to get over that hurdle, as the Bruins were swept four straight by The Great One. The 1988 Boston Bruins did get over the hump though and finally put together a big playoff run, just at the time their city was going to need some hockey love in the spring.