To call the playoff run of the 1991 Minnesota North Stars improbable is to understate the case. Even by the fluid and chaotic standards of the NHL playoffs, Minnesota’s 1991 run was out of nowhere. Their 68 points was 15th among 16 playoff teams. Nor did they have an easy bracket. Five teams accumulated at least 100 points in the 1991 NHL regular season and four of them were in the Campbell Conference (the West), along with Minnesota. Yet somehow, these North Stars ended up in the Stanley Cup Finals.
Dave Gagner led the team in scoring with 40 goals, with Brian Bellows and Mike Modano also being steady contributors. Modano, only 20-years-old, was the one key piece of the 1991 Minnesota North Stars that was still a key a part of the franchise when it won the 1999 Stanley Cup after a relocation to Dallas.
Minnesota was respectable defensively, ranking 10th in the NHL behind the play of goaltender Jon Casey. The offense ranked 15th, but when the playoffs came around, the North Stars came up with some offensive outbursts at key moments.
In the first round, with the series against the division-leading Chicago Blackhawks tied two games apiece, Minnesota won Game 5 by a 6-0 count and closed it out one game later. Minnesota then won two of three to open their series with the St. Louis Blues and then had an offensive barrage in Game 4. The 8-4 win put the series under control and Minnesota closed it out in six.
The run through the Norris Division playoffs (the Central/Midwest) would be marked with irony when we consider how this franchise won the Cup eight years later. Chicago’s goaltender was Ed Belfour and St. Louis was keyed by league MVP Brett Hull. Both players would be acquired by the then-Dallas Stars and be instrumental in that 1999 run.
The Edmonton Oilers were standing between Minnesota and a trip to the Finals in 1991. The Oilers had been the dynasty of the late 1980s, winning four Stanley Cups with Wayne Gretzky from 1984-88, then winning one without him in 1990. But the attrition of talent was taking its toll, and the Oilers were on a dark horse playoff ride similar to the one Minnesota was enjoying. This Edmonton team might have been the defending champs, but they weren’t unbeatable anymore.
Minnesota and Edmonton split the first two games. Once again, that North Star offense, awake for the spring, got unleashed. They won the third game 7-3 and then took each of the next two to punch their ticket to the 1991 Stanley Cup Finals.
It was a year of miracles for sports in Minnesota. The baseball team was beginning a year in which they would go worst-to-first and win the World Series. The hockey team nearly joined them, winning two of the first three games in the Finals over the Pittsburgh Penguins. But the run finally ended when Mario Lemieux and the Pens got it together and won three straight.
Three years later, this franchise would be in Dallas, an outrageous affront to a great hockey region like Minnesota. There is no disrespect toward Dallas intended in this—it’s clearly a big-time major league market in any sport—but when it comes to hockey, it should never have happened at Minnesota’s expense. In 2001, the NHL would return to the Twin Cities with the Wild. They have yet to reach the high the 1991 Minnesota North Stars gave the fans.