The Boston Bruins had won the Wales Conference (the East) two of the previous three years, reaching the Finals in 1988 and 1990. Both times, the dreams of a Stanley Cup ended at the hands of the Edmonton Oilers. The 1991 team was cut of a similar mold, rolling up a big regular season and a nice playoff run, before ultimately coming up short, this time in the conference finals.
A pair of Hall of Fame players keyed the 1991 Boston Bruins. Ray Borque was one of the great defenseman of all-time and he finished with 73 assists in ‘91. Cam Neeley scored 51 goals and handed out 40 more assists. These two greats were supplemented by Craig Janney (26 goals/66 assists) and 30-plus goal scorers in Ken Hodge and Dave Christian.
Andy Moog was one of the league’s better goaltenders, with an 89.6% save rate—a figure much bettern in the NHL world of 1991 than it would be today. He anchored the seventh-best defense in the league, while the offense ranked fifth in goals scorer.
Boston opened the season with four straight wins and was 20-12-8 at the New Year. Over January and February, they won three head-to-head battles with the archrival Montreal Canadiens. They also grabbed a 5-4 ovetime win over Wayne Gretzky’s Los Angeles Kings and split a pair with the rising force in the East, Mario Lemieux and the Pittsburgh Penguins.
The Bruins closed the season with a record of 44-24-12, the best in the Wales Conference by a comfortable eleven points. They had won five of seven games against Montreal, their top rival in the old Adams Division. Boston was primed for the playoffs.
Similar to today, the playoff format in 1991 was division-based, but even stricter—you simply took the top four teams in all four divisions and they played amongst themselves for the first two rounds. The Bruins opened with the Hartford Whales (today’s Carolina Hurricanes).
The Whalers had a couple of good players—most notably Hall of Fame center Ron Francis, who passed for 55 assists. They also had a 40-plus goal scorer in Pat Veerbek. But there was little depth—the offense as a whole ranked 19th in a 21-team league and the defense was only marginally better at 13th.
When Boston scored their first goal 23 seconds into Game 1, it looked like the rout was on. But the Bruins came apart, Moog was completely outplayed by Hartford counterpart Peter Sidorkiewicz and the result was a 5-2 loss. When they trailed 3-2 after the first two periods of Game 2, things looked bleak.
Neely stepped up and completed a hat trick with two goals on the third period, both off assists from Janney. Boston won 4-3. They went south to Hartford and used another third-period explosion ito win Game 3, scoring four times to break open a 2-2 game.
With a 2-1 series lead, the Bruins relaxed and in the first six minutes of Game 4, dug themselves a 3-0 hole. They rallied again, but lost 4-3. The trend of third-period dominance hit its peak back at the Garden in Game 5. Trailing 1-0 after two periods, Boston had the lead within 90 seconds and unloaded for six goals. Neely scored twice, Janney handed out three assists and the Bruins had control of the series.
Moog made sure it stood up. Even though Hartford controlled the flow of Game 6, doubling Boston in shots 32-16, the Bruin goaltender delivered in a 3-1 win. Boston was moving onto the Division Finals.
Montreal was waiting. In spite of the Bruins’ regular season control of this series, the Canadiens had a rich history of postseason success with a lot of it at Boston’s expense. Montreal also had a goaltender more than capable of making that continue in 1991—Patrick Roy, who would be one of the great netminders of all-time, was 25-years-old and he led the second-best defense in the NHL.
The offense was not explosive, with only 30-goal scorer in Stephane Richer. But they were balanced and finished ninth in the league in goals scorer.
Each of the first two games to open the series at the Garden were right. Neely got to Roy twice in Game 1 and that was enough for a 2-1 win. Both goalies stood up against a shot barrage in Game 2, but Montreal got even with 4-3 overtime win.
Game 3 in Montreal went along the same lines and was tied 2-2 in the closing two minutes. Ken Hodge only last four years in the NHL. But this was his best year and this game was his biggest moment—he scored the game-winner with 1:21 left to deliver the win. Moog played poorly in Game 4 and the 6-2 loss sent another series back to Boston for a pivotal Game 5.
In a big spot, Neely was the man again, beating Roy for a hat trick that was the difference in a 4-1 win. Boston clung to a 2-1 lead late in Game 6 and was looking to close it out, when Montreal added to its legacy of comebacks—they tied the game with four minutes to go and won it in overtime. For Boston fans with long memories (which is basically all of us), it was shades of 1979, albeit with stakes not quite as high.
Moog’s finest hour came in Game 7. Montreal got off 36 shots to Boston’s 33, but Moog was just a little bit better than the great Roy. The 2-1 win sent the Bruins to the conference finals.
For two more games, the Stanley Cup dream continued to burn bright in New England, as Boston grabbed a 2-0 series lead over Pittsburgh. But the series changed drasticallyupon getting to the Steel City. The Bruin defense couldn’t get Lemieux off the puck, nor could they generate any thing offensively. The Penguins coasted to a pair of 4-1 wins. There was no Game 5 magic at the Garden in this series—Moog was chased in a 7-2 loss and Pittsburgh closed the series in Game 6.
Boston’s success from 1988-91 had come in spite of coaching turnover. Terry O’Reilly had been the coach of the 1988 team, while Mike Milbury, current NBC Sports Network studio analyst, coached the 1990 team and this 1991 edition. Milbury was out after this year, but continuing the coaching carousel didn’t work this time. It would be twenty years before the Bruins made it back to the Finals, this time with Neely in the role of team president.