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 1980was 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.
The 1986 Boston Bruins were coming off two straight years of first-round playoff exits, one as a heavy favorite, the other as a noble underdog who came up just short. In either case, they were looking to get back on track. But a long season where simply making the postseason proved more difficult than normal set the stage for another early postseason dismissal.
The Bruins were in transition at the goalie spot, with Pat Riggins and Doug Keans splitting the time throughout the regular season and play in net was often spotty. But the defensive unit as a whole was led by Hall of Famer Ray Borque, a 2nd-team All-Star, and they played good enough team defense to rank sixth in the NHL in goals allowed.
It was scoring that was the real problem. Barry Pederson returned after missing the 1985 season with injuries. He scored 29 goals, but wasn’t the same player he’d been in 1984. Rick Middleton, the team’s most consistent offensive threat through the 1980s was limited to 49 games this season.
There were still good scorers, with Keith Crowder getting 38 goals and Charlie Simmer lighting the lamp 36 times. Borque was a skilled passer, as was Ken Linseman. Each finished with 58 assists. But at the end of the day they only ranked 12th in a 21-team league for goals scored.
The NHL playoff format was straightforward and generous—the top four teams in each division qualified and played among each other for the first two rounds. There were five teams in the old Adams Division. Boston’s rivals were the Quebec Nordiques (today’s Colorado Avalanche), their ancient rival from Montreal, the Buffalo Sabres and the Hartford Whalers (today’s Carolina Hurricane). The purpose of the 80-game regular season was to be better than one of those teams.
That would prove challenging and not just for Boston. The Adams was the most balanced division in hockey for 1986, with all five teams being better than three eventual playoff qualifiers from other divisions. It was a five-team race from start to finish.
The Bruins came out of the gate strong, with an 8-2-1 start that included a win over the Canadiens. One of the losses was to Wayne Gretzky’s Edmonton Oilers, the two-time defending Stanley Cup champ. But Boston started to stagnate and by the New Year, the record was 17-13-7. More concerning was that in thirteen games against Adam Division rivals from November 5 to January 1 the Bruins record was 3-7-3
A 4-0 win over the Sabres on January 4 soothed some pain and Boston closed a strong January by sweeping two straight from the Whalers. Their record was up to 25-18-7. They were in hot pursuit of Quebec and Montreal for the division lead…and barely holding off Buffalo and Hartford.
The first nine days of February did not go well, with losses to the Canadiens, Sabres and Nordiques. By month’s end they were 30-26-7. Boston was still in third place, but they were a little closer to Buffalo and Hartford behind them than they were to Quebec and Montreal ahead.
Three straight losses in early March, at the hands of the Whalers, Nordiques and Canadiens meant Boston was in serious danger of missing the playoffs. That’s an unacceptable outcome in New England today and in the days when 16/21 teams made the postseason, it would be nothing short of public embarrassment.
On March 13, the Bruins stepped up and beat the Canadiens 3-2. The win was part of an important eleven-game stretch where they went 6-1-4 and got back on track. At the end of March, Boston had two straight games with Buffalo. The Sabres were in line to be the team left standing without a chair when the music stopped. The Bruins made sure of it with wins of 2-1 and 5-3. Buffalo was going home. Boston edged out Hartford for third place.
Now there was opportunity in the playoffs. Not just for advancement, but for revenge. Montreal was the opponent and the Canadiens had been the ones to knock the Bruins out each of the previous two years.
Montreal was led by Mats Naslund and his 43 goals. Bobby Smith and Kjell Dahl were each 30-plus goal scorers. The Canadiens had the sixth-best offense in the league.
They could also defend. Larry Robinson, a part of the great Montreal dynasty in the late 1970s was 34-years-old, but the Hall of Famer could still play. So could veteran Bob Gainey.
Chris Chelios was young, but he was another future of Hall of Famer already making an impact. The same was true for Guy Charbonneau. And it was most certainly the case for goaltender Patrick Roy.
The first round was a best-of-five affair in 1986 and opened up at Montreal’s Bell Centre. After a scoreless first period, the Bruins gave up three consecutive goals in the second period and lost 3-1.
Head coach Butch Goring pulled the trigger on a change at goalie and called on 19-year-old Bill Ranford. The kid had the same second period problems as the veterans did, giving up two goals after a scoreless opening period. Boston lost 3-2.
Back home in the old Garden, the Bruins took an early 1-0 lead and led 3-2 going into the third period. Defensively, they limited Montreal to twenty shots on goal. But Gainey took over, scoring twice and ending Boston’s season with a 4-3 loss.
It was another tough-to-swallow playoff exit. Even the positive—the development of Ranford in goal—would prove to bite Boston in the rear. Ranford ended up in goal for Edmonton and led the Oilers to a Finals victories over the Bruins in 1990.
The 1985 Boston Bruins came into the season looking for redemption. A strong 1984regular 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.
The Pittsburgh Penguins had won a breakthrough Stanley Cup in 1991, behind the extraordinary talents of Mario Lemieux. It was the first championship for a franchise that had never done anything of note. The 1992 Pittsburgh Penguins needed to validate that they were a legitimate contender. They did exactly that, although not without a fair share of adversity along the way.
Bob Johnson, the head coach of that ‘91 Cup winner suffered a brain aneurysm and passed away in the August before the 1991-92 season began. Johnson’s death cast immediate sadness over the season.
Lemieux dealt with back problems and missed 16 regular season games. His numbers were still good—44 goals/87 assists—but they left him a second-team All-Star rather than leading the way at center. And even a modest amount of missed time mattered in a division race where the New York Rangers and Washington Capitals had excellent teams.
But amidst the sadness and injuries, there was still plenty of talent. Pittsburgh hired Scotty Bowman, the architect of the most recent Montreal Canadiens Dynasty (1976-79) to come on and coach. On the ice, Kevin Stevens scored 54 goals, passes for 69 assists and was a 1st-team All-Star. Joe Mullen lit the lamp 42 times. Defenseman Larry Murphy had 56 assists. And the Pens had 30-plus goal scorers in Mark Recchi and a 19-year-old kid named Jaromir Jagr.
They also had veteran help that knew something about winning repeat Stanley Cups. Paul Coffey, a fine passing defenseman, had been part of the Gretzky Dynasty in Edmonton in the late 1980s. Bryan Trottier at center had been a leader on the New York Islanders teams that won four straight Cups from 1980-83. Both were on the last legs of their career, but their intangibles made them a perfect fit on these Pittsburgh Penguins.
It added up to the most prolific scoring offense in the NHL. The problem came on the defensive side were the Penguins were 20th in goals allowed—and keep in mind, the league only had 21 teams in 1992. Tom Barrasso could be up and down at goalie.
Pittsburgh got off to a nice start, with a record of 22-13-4 as the calendar flipped to the New Year, but the remainder of the regular season was marked by mediocrity. The Pens played sub-.500 hockey from January 1 to the start of the postseason. They finished third in the old Patrick Division, behind the Rangers and Capitals. And they had gone 2-5 against both of those rivals during the regular season.
The head-to-head record was a significant issue, because the NHL structured its playoffs with a strict division format. The top four teams from each of the four divisions qualified, they were seeded 1 thru 4 and played amongst themselves to settle an entrant to the conference finals. Pittsburgh would have to go through both Washington and New York in the first two rounds.
Washington was up first. The Caps finished the regular season 45-27-8. They could come close to matching the Penguins on offense, with Dino Ciccarrelli and Dmitri Khristich leading the second-best attack in the league. And while they weren’t great on defense, their 10th-place ranking in goals allowed was still considerably better than Pittsburgh.
The story of the first two games was Caps goalie Don Beaupre. The Pens fired 68 shots on goal in Games 1 & 2. They scored three times for their trouble. The losses of 3-1 and 6-2 sent them back home in a serious hole.
In the second period of Game 3, Pittsburgh got some momentum going. They broke through with four goals, including two from Lemieux. Mario completed the hat trick in the third period to secure the 6-4 win. But Ciccarrelli answered back in Game 4, scoring four goals. A 7-2 thrashing put Pittsburgh on the brink of elimination.
Back in the nation’s capital for Game 5, the Penguins trailed 2-1 in the second period and the bump-and-grind style of play was more conducive to the Capitals. But Pittsburgh found a way to beat Beaupre and pulled away with a 5-2 win. They again trailed in the second period of Game 6, this time down 4-2. Pittsburgh pulled even 4-4 and then Mario took over, scoring a pair of power-play goals to deliver the 6-4 win.
Now it was time for Game 7 and the Penguins finally had momentum. Once again, a defensive-oriented game wasn’t what they would have preferred. But Barrasso delivered and the 3-1 win was clinched on Mullen’s empty-net goal. The comeback was complete and the Rangers were up next.
New York had finished first in the Patrick Division. They were a top-five team both offensively and defensively. Mark Messier, who had championship credentials from Edmonton, had come to the Big Apple and won the MVP award in ‘92. They had a Hall of Fame defenseman in Brian Leetch and two more good scorers in Tony Amonte and Mike Gartner.
Barrasso picked up where he’d left off in Game 7 of the Caps series, stopping 35/37 shots in Madison Square Garden and leading a 4-2 win in the opener. He then held a 2-1 lead into the latter half of the third period in Game 2. But the Rangers were on the attack. They hit Barrasso with 39 shots total and the goalie broke late, giving up three late ones in a 4-2 loss.
That late cracking sent Barrasso into another slump and he played poorly in the two middle games in Pittsburgh. In each game, the Penguins had to rally from deficits of 2-0, 3-1 and 4-2 and each game went to overtime. They managed to get a split, winning Game 4 thanks to a hat trick from Ron Francis.
Game 5 was tied with 5:33 left when Jagr scored his second goal of the night to get a 3-2 win. Barrasso was back on his game and he kept it going at home in Game 6, stopping 33/34 shots. Pittsburgh clung to a 3-1 lead and then scored two empty-net goals to blow it open and seal another series.
The Penguins were only halfway through the postseason and they had faced their two biggest hurdles. And there was no letdown in sight—in fact, Pittsburgh would not lose another hockey game.
A conference finals rematch with the Boston Bruins was up next. Pittsburgh allowed 41 shots on goal in Game 1 and trailed 3-2. Shawn McEachern tied the game with 7:33 to play and Jagr won it in overtime. That was the last time the Bruins were competitive. Barrasso was completely locked in and only allowed four goals over the next three games. Stevens lit it up in Game 3 with four goals (none of them empty-net). Mario scored twice in Game 4, including an early short-handed goal to set the tone. The scores of the final three games were 5-2, 5-1 and 5-1. Pittsburgh was back in the Stanley Cup Finals.
Chicago was waiting in the Finals. The Blackhawks weren’t as deep as the Penguins, but they had talent—Jeremy Roenick was an elite scorer and Chris Chelios was a Hall of Fame defenseman. They had not one, but two all-time greats at the goalie spot with Ed Belfour starting and a mostly unknown Dominic Hasek in reserve. The Blackhawks didn’t go away easily—all four games were good and competitive.
In fact, Pittsburgh looked in serious trouble through much of Game 1, trailing 4-1. Then Lemieux got loose. Mario scored twice and the team scored four straight, the last game-winner coming from Lemieux with 0:13 left. Another Mario outburst, albeit considerably less dramatic won Game 2. He broke a 1-1 tie in the second period with two goals in less than three minutes.
Barrasso played his second straight outstanding game back in Chicago for Game 3, making a first period goal from Stevens stand up in a 1-0 win. The offenses got unleashed in Game 4. Barrasso gave up a hat trick to Dirk Graham in the first period. But the Penguins chased Belfour, nailing him for three goals in the first seven minutes. The game was 3-3 at the period and 4-4 going into the final 20 minutes.
Pittsburgh got to Hasek for two goals in the third period, from Murphy and Francis, and it stood up for a 6-5 win. There were heroes aplenty. Stevens and Jagr each scored double-digit goals for the playoffs. Barrasso, for all his ups and downs, had lifted his save percentage from 88.5% in the regular season to 90.7% in the playoffs. And no hero was bigger than Mario, who finished with 16 goals/18 assists and a Conn Smythe Trophy.
No one could know that there were some trying times ahead for the Penguin franchise. The only made it as far as the conference finals twice in the ensuing 15 years. They went through financial difficulties and threatened relocation. Mario came through one more time—he bought the team and turned it around. By 2008, Sidney Crosby and a new era of Penguins stars were picking up on the legacy that their boss had left behind in 1992.
The Chicago Blackhawks were a hungry franchise. One of the NHL’s “Original Six” their last Stanley Cup had come in 1961. They had made the Finals four times since then, but never won it all. And the nine-year run from 1982-90 had been exceptionally frustrating—four losses in the conference finals. Then they lost in the first round in 1991. The 1992 Chicago Blackhawks made up for at least some of the frustration when they returned to the Stanley Cup Finals.
Chicago’s success was keyed by the second-best defense in the NHL. They had not one, but two future Hall of Famers in net. Ed Belfour was the primary starter, with 27-year-old Dominic Hasek backing him up. Anotehr all-time great, Chris Chelios was the top defensemen.
Offensively, the Blackhawks had some great individual talent. Jeremy Roenick scored 50 goals and finished fifth in the MVP voting. Steve Larmer and Michael Goulet combined to score 51 goals. But depth was lacking and Chicago ended up 15th in a 21-team league in scoring.
The Blackhawks were mediocre out of the gate and a game below .500 at the New Year. They took advantage of a soft January schedule to go 9-1-1 in a stretch that had a heavy diet of bottom-feeders. But it got Chicago above .500 and they never looked back. Chicago finished the regular season with a record of 36-29-15. It was good for second place in the old Norris Division (the teams of the Midwest). And if you wanted a reason for optimism in the playoffs there was this—the Blackhawks had beaten the division champion Detroit Red Wings five of seven times in the regular season.
That was no small thing in an era where the playoffs were strictly formatted by division, even more so than today. The top four teams in each division qualified, they were seeded 1 thru 4 and played their way off into the conference finals. Chicago would draw St. Louis in the first round.
The Blues had two outstanding players leading the way. Brett Hull scored 70 goals to lead the league. Brendan Shanahan was a 30-goal scorer. Both players would later win Cups in other places (Shanahan in Detroit, Hull in Dallas when he scored one of hockey’s most controversial goals). But St. Louis lacked depth and a contract dispute with a third star, Adam Oates, had forced the team to deal him to Boston in February.
Chicago took the series opener 3-1 behind two goals from Brian Noonan, but the Blackhawks started having problems at goalie, of all places. Belfour allowed four goals on the first eleven shots he faced in Game 2, was pulled for Hasek and Chicago lost in spite of two goals from Chelios. Hasek got the Game 3 start on the road, blew a 4-2 lead and was pulled for overtime. The game went into the second OT, but the Blues won again.
With their season teetering, the Blackhawks came out aggressively in Game 4, attacking the net and winning shots 37-19. It translated into a 5-3 win. They kept up the pressure back home in Game 5, this time outshooting St. Louis 40-24, getting two goals from Larmer and winning 6-4. Finally, the goaltending returned to form in Game 6. Belfour stopped 38/39 shots and made Roenick’s two goals stand up in a 2-1 win to seal the series.
Detroit was waiting in the Division Finals. They were stacked with Hall of Fame talent, starting with Steve Yzerman (45 goals/58 assists) and Sergei Federov (32/54). Paul Ysebaert, Jimmy Carson and Ray Sheppard were all 30-plus goal scorers. Nicklas Lidstrom was an elite defenseman. The Red Wings ranked top six in both goals scored and goals allowed.
They also couldn’t beat this Chicago team. The Blackhawks won the opener when Jocelyn Lemieux broke a 1-1 tie and scored the game-winner with 6:27 left. They grabbed a 2-0 lead in the first period of Game 2 and rode Belfour’s 24 saves to a 3-1 win.
Belfour struggled in Game 3, giving up four goals on just 24 shots and blowing leads of 2-0 and 4-2. But when Dirk Graham scored his second goal of the night with less than five minutes to play, Belfour made the 5-4 lead stand up. And the great goalie was brilliant in Game 4. It was a scoreless duel into the final two minutes when a goal by Brent Sutter completed the sweep and sent Chicago to yet another conference finals.
The Edmonton Oilers had been the most feared name in hockey during the latter part of 1980s. But Wayne Gretzky had been shipped out three years earlier and Mark Messier, the anchor of their 1990 championship team, was now in New York. The only holdover from that team was goalie Bill Ranford and there were only two notable scorers—Vincent Damphousse and Joe Murphy.
And it didn’t take long for the talent gap to show. Game 1 was tied 2-2 at the end of the first period and then Chicago started rolling. They got two goals from Larmer, two more from Roenick and rolled to an 8-2 win. They spotted Edmonton a 2-zip lead in Game 2, then unloaded 45 shots on Ranford, got two more goals from Larmer and won 4-2.
On the road for Game 3, the Blackhawks again spotted the Oilers the first two goals and again won the hockey game. This time they had to go overtime, but a Roenick goal secured the 4-3 win. And just like the first two rounds, Belfour took over when the clinch was in sight. He stopped 20/21 shots, Noonan scored twice and with a 5-1 win, the 1992 Chicago Blackhawks were going to the Stanley Cup Finals.
They were also going in red-hot, with eleven straight playoff wins. But awaiting them was another hot team—the defending champion Pittsburgh Penguins had beaten two outstanding teams to start the postseason, in the New York Rangers and Washington Capitals. The Pens also swept their way through the conference finals, dispatching the Boston Bruins.
Pittsburgh was led by Mario Lemieux and a 50-goal scorer in Kevin Stevens. Joe Mullen scored 42 goals during the regular season, an there were 30-goal scorers in Mark Recchi and a 19-year-old Jaromir Jagr. They had veteran help from the NHL’s two most recent dynasties—Paul Coffey, a defenseman from the great Edmonton teams of the late 1980s and Bryan Trottier, one of the leaders of the New York Islanders who won four straight Cups from 1980-83.
That’s the long way of saying that Pittsburgh was simply a heckuva lot better than Chicago. The Blackhawks fought and made each game individually a competitive one. But the result was always the same. The Penguins won in a sweep, with Chicago only losing the four games by a combined five goals and never by more than two.
Roenick’s 12 playoff goals led the team, while Chelios had 15 assists in the postseason. Chicago had finally broken through and returned to the Stanley Cup Finals. Although maybe it’s a good thing that the fan base didn’t know how long the next wait was going to be—the Blackhawks did not return to the Finals until 2010 when they won the first of what would be three Stanley Cups in six years.
The period of the late 1980s and early 1990s was one where the Boston Bruins enjoyed steady success, even if they couldn’t settle on a coach. They made the Finals in 1988 and 1990, each time under a different coach. They reached the conference finals in 1991. The 1992 Boston Bruins came into the season with their third coach of the last five years. Rick Bowness again got them to a conference finals.
Boston’s best player was the all-time great defenseman Ray Borque, although he didn’t have a vintage year in ‘92. He got offensive support from Vladimir Ruzicka and Stephen Leach, who combined to score 70 goals.
It took the Bruins a little while to get rolling and that included making some mid-season personnel changes. They were barely over .500 at the New Year, before winning eight of nine games moved them decisively to the winning side of the ledger. They stumbled again in February, losing five of six. But they also beat the defending champion Pittsburgh Penguins and more importantly, got some help.
Boston acquired center Adam Oates, a future Hall of Famer, with Craig Janney—a nice, above-average player—being the best part of the package they gave up. Oates’ contract problems in St. Louis had made him available and the Bruins were a big winner. It wouldn’t pay immediate dividends—Boston still finished the regular season a pedestrian 36-32-12. They were at or below the league middle in both scoring and defense. But they had the horses to be a threat in the playoffs.
The NHL playoffs were strictly division-based in 1992. The top four teams from each division qualified and played amongst each other for the first two rounds. The Adams Division, were the Bruins resided, had the weaker teams—away from the Penguins and away from the East’s top two regular seasons, the New York Rangers and Washington Capitals.
Instead, the sub-.500 Buffalo Sabres awaited in the first round. Buffalo had a pretty good offense, with five players who scored over 30 goals during the regular season. That included passer extraordinaire Dale Hawerchuck, and was led by Pat Fontaine, who lit the lamp 46 times. But the Sabres were one of the league’s worst defensive teams.
That soft Buffalo defense came ready to play in Game 1, as Boston dug themselves a 3-0 hole and couldn’t climb out, en route to a 3-2 loss. The Bruins attacked in Game 2, with 42 shots and pulled out a 3-2 overtime win to tie the series. Borque scored a goal and passed for two assists in another 3-2 victory in Game 3. And the Bruins took firm control of the series when they won the fourth game, 5-4 in overtime, in spite of only getting 19 shots on goal.
But that bad Sabre defense showed up ready to go in the Garden for Game 5 and the Bruins were shut out 2-0. Boston goalie Andy Moog then endured a disastrous Game 6, being yanked early in a 9-3 loss. The entire season was down to one game. Moog bounced back with a strong showing. In a 2-2 tie with 8:20 to play, Dave Reid scored the goal that sent the Bruins into the Division Finals.
A familiar foe, the Montreal Canadiens awaited. The Canadiens didn’t have a lot of offensive firepower. They only ranked 14th in a 21-team league in goals scored. They only had one 30-goal scorer in Kirk Muller and only one future Hall of Famer—center Denis Savard, a small number in a league that’s generous in how many it inducts into its Hall.
What Montreal could do was play defense and that started with one of the greatest goalies in the history of the sport. Patrick Roy was in net and anchored the unit that led the league in goal prevention. The other thing the Canadiens had established was an ability to beat the Bruins, going 5-2-1 in the regular season rivalry games.
But Montreal, like Boston, had struggled with a lesser opponent in the first round, needing all seven games to dispatch the Hartford Whalers (today’s Carolina Hurricanes). And the Bruins peppered Roy in the opener. Leach scored two goals to lead the way in a 6-4 win. Game 2 was a grinding defensive game with neither team getting more than 25 shots. It should have been tailor-made for Roy, especially when he had a 2-1 lead in the final five minutes. But Dave Poulin scored to tie it, the Bruins won in overtime and came home in command of the series.
Another defense-first game followed in Game 3 and once again it was Moog winning the battle with Roy in a 3-2 win. The Bruin goalie delivered again in Game 4. Boston clung to a 1-0 lead thanks to second period goal from Poulin, as Moog kept turning the Canadiens away. Finally, an empty-net goal sealed the 2-0 win and the Bruins were going to the Eastern Conference Finals.
Pittsburgh had been up-and-down in the regular season, but Mario Lemieux’s defending champs had put it together in the playoffs, ousting both the Capitals and Rangers. The Penguins still had the best offense in the league, including All-Star forward Kevin Stevens and his 54 regular season goals. Joe Mullen was another 40-goal scorer in black-and-gold, while Mark Recchi lit the lamp 39 times.
That was too much firepower for Boston to handle. In spite of outshooting Pittsburgh 41-31 in the opener and leading in the thrid period, the Bruins lost in overtime. Moog gave up five goals on just 23 shots in a Game 2 loss. Stevens was unstoppable in Game 3, beating the Bruin goalie four times in a 5-1 final. Another 5-1 loss in Game 4 ended a series where the Bruins were outscored 19-7.
It had still been a strong playoff run and marked the fourth time in five years that Boston had reached the conference finals. They were only losing postseason series to teams led by names like Gretzky (1988), Messier (1990) and Lemieux (1991-92). That should have pointed to the need for patience.
But patience was definitely not a trait of NHL teams in this time period and it’s never been a trait of Boston sports. Another coaching change was made and this latest spin of the carousel was too much—the franchise would not make it back to the conference finals for nearly twenty years, in the Stanley Cup year of 2011.
The 1990 Boston Bruins were a talented team under a first-year head coach in Mike Milbury. The Bruins lived up to their potential, making their second Stanley Cup Finals in three years. Unfortunately, they played in The Age of Edmonton and lost to the Oilers for the second time.
Milbury replaced Terry O’Reilly, who had taken to the team to the Finals in 1988. No matter who was coaching, the success was built around two great players. Defenseman Ray Borque, one of the best of all-time, passed for 65 assists in 1990. Forward Cam Neely, a future Hall of Famer himself, scored 55 goals. The Bruins got quality goaltending from Andy Moog and steady support play from Craig Janney, Bob Carpenter and Bob Sweeney.
Boston got off to a good start, keyed by a 7-0-1 stretch in November that included wins over Edmonton, Los Angeles (where Wayne Gretzky now resided) and Buffalo (a fellow contender in the East). But the Bruins gave that ground back in December when they lost six of seven in what should have been a manageable portion of the schedule. They reached the New Year with a record of 21-15-3.
A five-game win streak to kick off January got them back in gear and Boston played consistent hockey the rest of the way. The Bruins finished the season with a record of 46-25-9, won the President’s Trophy for the best regular season record and had home-ice advantage throughout the playoffs.
The Hartford Whalers (today’s Carolina Hurricanes were up first) and had a good defense, along with some offensive firepower led by Pat Veerbeck and Ron Francis. The Whalers took two of the first three games and when they took a 5-2 lead after two periods in Game 4, the outlook for Boston looked bleak.
Their backs to the wall, the Bruins attacked and scored four goals in the third period. Two of them were from Dave Poulin, including the game-winner with 1:44 to play and the 6-5 win evened up the series.
Boston had been having goaltending problems through the first part of this series, and for some reason were giving backup goalie Reggie Lemelin equal time with Moog in an effort to find the hottest possible hand. Milbury stuck with Moog the rest of the way and it turned the tide. Boston scraped out a 3-2 win in Game 5 and even though they lost in overtime in Game 6, Moog came home for Game 7 and stopped 27/28 shots in a 3-1 win.
An ancient rival in the Montreal Canadiens was up in the second round. Montreal had a nicely balanced lineup, led by Hall of Fame defenseman Chris Chelios. But the real reason to fear the Canadiens was a goalie named Patrick Roy, who led his team to the fourth-best record in the NHL.
Instead, Moog would enjoy a career highlight in outplaying one of the great goalies of all-time. Boston won the opener 1-0, and then nailed Roy for 11 goals over the next two games, wins of 5-4 (OT) and 6-3. Even though the Bruins lost Game 4, they returned to the Garden in Game 5 and in a game tied 1-1 after two periods, got the lead on a goal by Glen Wesley. Neely sealed the 3-1 win late with a empty-net goal.
After the seven-game war against Hartford and the grudge battle with Montreal, the conference finals against the Washington Capitals was a bit anticlimactic. The Caps’ postseason history is checkered, to say the least and in 1990 they were a sub-.500 team. Beyond Dino Ciccarelli and Geoff Courtnall’s ability to light the lamp, these Caps didn’t have much.
It took a couple periods for Boston to assert themselves. But trailing 3-2 in the opener, Poulin again was a sparkplug. He scored two goals to key the 5-3 win. Moog took over from there, allowing only three goals in the next three games as the Bruins closed out a sweep.
The rematch of the 1988 Cup Finals with Edmonton was on hand, but the fact the Oilers no longer had Gretzky was no small difference. There was real hope in New England that the Bruins’ year had finally arrived. I still remember being at a friend’s house to watch Game 1…a game that went on interminably, into triple-overtime, before Edmonton won it.
The Oiler defense never let Boston get untracked. The Bruins were able to fight out a 2-1 win in Game 3, but they only scored eight goals in five games and it was never a series. A strong season ended with disappointment.
Milbury made it back to the conference finals in 1991 before losing to Mario Lemieux and the Pittsburgh Penguins. It was his final season as coach and the franchise’s long pursuit of a Stanley Cup continued until 2011, when Neely, now club president, finally put together the team that gave a hockey-crazed region its long-awaited Cup.
The 1980s was the Dynasty Decade in NHL history. The start of the decade saw the ascendancy of the New York Islanders, who won four straight Stanley Cups. At the same time, the Edmonton Oilers had a young talent by the name of Wayne Gretzky taking the league by storm and winning Hart Trophies. By the middle of the decade, Gretzky’s Oilers had supplanted by the Islanders. Edmonton won four Cups in five years.
This download contains ten articles that tell the story of the 1980s Stanley Cup champions. You’ll read about each individual season in the Islander & Gretzky Dynasties. Read about the most dominant team each produced—like 1981 for New York or a devastating playoff run for Edmonton in 1985. Or on the other end of the spectrum, there were years like 1982 when the Islanders barely survived. And by decade’s end, Edmonton stunned the entire sports world when they traded Gretzky to the Los Angeles Kings.
They’re all here—from Mike Bossy and Bryan Trottier to Mark Messier and Juri Karri. From Billy Smith to Grant Fuhr. And there was also the temporary return of the league’s greatest dynasty. The Montreal Canadiens, who had reigned as recently as 1976-79, won a Cup in 1986 with a great young goalie in Patrick Roy.
Ironically, the Dynasty Decade ended with a quintessential outlier—the Calgary Flames won the 1989 Stanley Cup in the first year that Gretzky was gone from Edmonton. It signaled the gradual start of a new era with significantly more parity, the era we know in the NHL today.
You’ll read about all the key players on each individual championship team. Learn about how their regular season unfolded and learn about the caliber of players and teams they defeated in the playoffs.
The DynastyDecade is a package of ten articles that exist individually on TheSportsNotebook.com, and have been edited for this compilation. For readers that lived through the 1980s, it’s a great way to stir old memories. For younger readers, it’s a terrific primer course on hockey during an era when ruling dynasties were the order of the day.
DOWNLOAD DYNASTY DECADE: THE STORY OF THE 1980s STANLEY CUP CHAMPIONS TODAY
The 1989 Calgary Flames entered the season looking like they would be the forgotten team of the 1980s in the NHL. They had sprung an upset on Wayne Gretzky’s Edmonton Oilers in 1986 and reached the Finals, but Montreal won the Stanley Cup. The Flames consistently contended, but this was a decade that otherwise belonged to the New York Islanders early on (Stanley Cups from 1980-83) and Gretzky’s Oilers after that.
The 1989 season really didn’t change that narrative from a public perspective, but it did at the practical level—Calgary won a Stanley Cup.
Bob Johnson, the coach of the ‘86 team and a great college coach prior to that, stepped down before 1988. Terry Crisp took over and Calgary promptly won the old Smythe Division (basically the Pacific Division), which included finishing ahead of Gretzky and Edmonton. But it was the Oilers who won the important matchup in the playoffs.
There were big changes in the Smythe Division prior to the 1989 season. Gretzky was traded from Edmonton to Los Angeles. No one knew exactly what this would do to the balance of the power, but this was much certain—the Kings had to be taken seriously and the Oilers, the defending Cup winners, had plenty of talent on hand to keep winning.
Calgary had plenty of weapons themselves though. Four players would eventually be inducted into the Hall of Fame and all of them had good years for the Flames in 1989. Joe Mullen was a first-team All-Star and his 51 goals were tied for fifth in the NHL. Joe Nieuwendyk, a 22-year-old center, also lit the lamp 51 times. Defenseman Al MacInnis was a second-team All-Star and a terrific passer, with 58 assist. Doug Gilmour was another one who could move the puck, passing for 59 assists and scoring 26 goals.
Hakan Loob wasn’t destined for the Hall, but the forward was another steady offensive contributor with 27 goals. Jiri Hrdinia, Joel Otto and Gary Roberts all scored 20-plus goals. This deep offensive attack ranked second in the NHL in goals scored. And with goalie Mike Vernon finishing second in the Vezina Trophy voting, the defense was also second in the league.
Calgary faced Los Angeles in the second game of the year and dropped a 6-5 overtime decision, but they won three of four games against Edmonton and a strong Eastern road trip with five wins in six tries had the Flames’ record at 24-8-6 by the New Year.
On January 5 and 7, the Calgary offense unloaded. They hosted the Kings and Oilers and scored a combined 15 goals to win both games. The Flames won at Montreal, the best team in the East on January 23 and they won eight straight games in the early part of February.
When the regular season was over, Calgary was 54-17-9. Their 117 points were easily the best in the old Campbell Conference (the West) and they edged Montreal by two points for the best record in the NHL overall.
The playoff format of the time was division-based and more rigid than it is today. The top four teams in each division qualified and were seeded 1 thru 4, with no wild-card crossover possibilities. Calgary started the playoffs against Vancouver. The Canucks finished 33-39-8. They had a couple 30-goal scorers in Petri Skriko and rookie Trevor Linden, but the lack of depth still made this the most productive offense in the league. What Vancouver could do was defend, as goalie Kirk MacLean led the NHL’s third-best defense. And these Canucks nearly derailed the Flames’ postseason hopes before they could even begin.
Calgary launched 46 shots at McLean in Game 1, but the goalie was too good and the Flames lost 4-3 in overtime. A balanced offense revived them in Game 2—five different players scored, with MacInnis having two assists in a 5-2 win. When Loob’s two goals keyed a 4-0 shutout in Game 3, Calgary looked back in control.
Vernon then crumbled in Game 4, allowing three goals and being yanked for backup Rick Wamsley, who fared little better in a 5-3 loss. Vernon bounced back in Game 5 with help from a stingy defense in front of him—the Canucks only took 18 shots, Vernon stopped them all and the Flames had another 4-0 win. But the goalie was awful in Game 6, facing only 24 shots, but allowing six goals in a 6-3 loss. This would come down to a seventh game in Calgary’s Saddledome.
The game would be riveting from the start. The pace was fast and furious and the two teams combined for 91 shots on goal. Vernon and McLean both played well and the game went to overtime at 3-3. Otto finally got the game-winner. Loob finished with three assists while MacInnis added two more. Calgary survived.
The other Smythe Division semi-final had been a juicy matchup between Gretzky’s Kings against his old teammates in Edmonton. It also went seven games and almost predictably, The Great One delivered in Game 7. Gretzky again stood in Calgary’s way, even if the uniform had changed.
Hockey’s greatest player ever had enjoyed a vintage year, with 54 goals, 114 assists and an MVP award. He also had plenty of help. Bernie Nicholls’ 70 goals were second in the league to only a rising star named Mario !!br0ken!! Luc Robatille, a future Hall of Famer himself, was 22-years-old, had scored 46 goals and was a first-team All-Star. This was the most potent offense in the NHL.
What Los Angeles did not have was a good defense, ranking 16th in a 21-team league. Calgary’s balance would be too much to overcome. The Flames survived an overtime Game 1 decision, winning 4-3 and then simply took over.
Gilmour stepped up with two goals in Game 2, Mullen added a goal and two assists and the team as a whole assaulted the net with 52 shots. The final score was 8-3. Gilmour scored two more goals when the series went to Los Angeles in Game 3 and the Flames won 5-2. It was Mullen who led the scoring in Game 4, with a pair of goals. Rob Ramage passed for four assists and the 5-3 win turned this Smythe Showdown into an anticlimactic sweep.
The Norris Division (the Midwest) was already hockey’s weakest division. The fourth-place Chicago Blackhawks then won the divisional playoffs and made it even weaker. For a conference finals showdown, Calgary faced an opponent that finished the regular season with a record of 27-41-12.
Chicago had a talented scorer in Steve Larmer, who went for 43 goals. Dirk Graham scored 33 more and had 45 assists. The Blackhawks also had a 23-year-old goalie in Ed Belfour who would prove to be a tough-minded winner in the course of his career. Had Chicago—or anyone else—known that about Belfour in 1989, this series might have been different. But right now Belfour was a third-stringer, never saw the ice in the playoffs and the Blackhawks were overmatched.
Vernon stopped all 19 shots he saw in a 3-0 shutout to start the series. The goalie had a hiccup in Game 2, allowing in four goals with only 22 shots against him and Chicago evened up the series with a 4-2 win.
MacInnis and Gilmour went to the Windy City and each produced two assists while Mullen scored twice in a 5-2 win. Each of the next two games were tough—a 2-1 overtime win in Game 4 and a 3-1 close-out victory back at the Saddledome in Game 5. The common theme was that Calgary simply controlled the flow of play, outshooting Chicago 75-46 in the two games combined.
The Flames were going back to the Finals and a familiar foe awaited—Montreal was again the last roadblock and these were the best two teams in hockey ready to settle the Stanley Cup.
Not only were these the two best teams, but the two best goalies, at least according to the 1989 Vezina Trophy results were in the net. Montreal had the great Patrick Roy to counter Vernon and Roy won the ‘89 Vezina, part of his Hall of Fame resume. The Canadiens had the top-ranked scoring defense in the NHL.
Offensively, they weren’t bad either. There was no dominant superstar, but Montreal was very deep. Mats Naslund and Bobby Smith were each 30-goal scorers. Guy Carbonneau, Stephen Roche, a 23-year-old Claude Lemieux, Shayne Corson and Russ Courtnall all broke the 20-goal threshold. And defenseman Chris Chelios was a 1st-team All-Star with 58 assists. The Canadiens scored the fifth-most goals in the league.
MacInnis had been a consistent passer all season and into the playoffs for Calgary. In Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Finals, the defenseman showed he could also finish, scoring two goals. Otto had two assists to key a 3-2 win. But Roy outplayed Vernon in Game 2. Calgary got 32 shots ,but only scored twice. Vernon faced just 23 shots, but still lost 4-2.
Roy continued his mastery in Game 3 back in Montreal, turning back 34 of 37 Calgary shots. The Flames lost 4-3 and were starting to sink again.
Mullen had been a bright spot in Game 3 with two goals and he lit the lamp twice more in Game 4. The defense limited Montreal to 19 shots and a 4-2 win evened up the series. Calgary went home and in an evenly fought fifth game pulled out a 3-2 win. They could taste the Cup.
There was still the question of beating Roy in his house, but Calgary found a way. With only 18 shots in Game 6, the Flames scored four times. Two of the goals came from Gilmour with MacInnis adding two assists. For the first and only time in franchise history, Calgary was hoisting a Stanley Cup.
MacInnis was the hero of the playoff run, finishing with 24 postseason assists and he was a deserved winner of the Conn Smythe Award. Mullen was the top playoff scorer with 16 goals. Gilmour and Nieuwendyk scored 11 and 10 goals respectively. And while we’ve pointed out some of Vernon’s rougher games in the playoffs, he still had a 90.5% save percentage in the playoffs—better than his outstanding regular season performance.
The years since have not been kind to the fans of Calgary. While the Flames reached the Finals again in 2004 before losing a seven-game series to Tampa Bay, that’s one of only two years they’ve advanced in the postseason and the only time past the second round. There have been long playoff droughts (1997-2003, 2010-14) in a league where qualifying for the postseason is the bare minimum of acceptability.
But in the 1980s, this was a good team with some great players. And in 1989 they got their just reward.
The 1986 Montreal Canadiens entered the season having failed to win a Stanley Cup the previous six years. That’s nothing for any other franchise but for the NHL’s proudest team, one who had won four straight Cups as recently as 1976-79, it was an interminable wait. 1986 saw a surprise return to the top led by a 20-year-goaltender named Patrick Roy.
Montreal had been through four coaches since the great Scotty Bowman left following the 1979 championship. Jean Perron became the fifth when he led the 1986 team. Most of the great players from that dynasty era were gone, but one big exception was 34-year-old defenseman Larry Robinson, who helped lead a defense that ranked fourth in the league in goals allowed.
Mats Naslund was a second-team All-Star, scoring 43 goals and handing out 67 assists. Other 30-goal scorers were Bobby Smith and Kjell Dahlin. The offense ranked sixth in the league in goals scored.
But the ultimate story of the season was Roy, and it’s appropriate that he was microcosm for the team. He was pretty good in the regular season, an 87.5% save rate that was much better by the context of 1986 than it would be today. And in the playoffs he lifted his game to a new level.
Montreal was consistent in the regular season, for better and for worse. They were .500 at Thanksgiving and nudged up to 19-12-4 by the New Year. They had a five-game win streak in January that was wiped out by a six-game losing streak in February. The Canadiens ended the regular season at 40-33-7.
It was good for second in the Adams Division—basically the Northeast, with Boston and division champ Quebec included. The record was fifth-best in the Wales Conference (the East) and seventh overall. There was no reason to expect something special from this Canadien team in the playoffs—the bracket seemed set up to produce an Edmonton-Philadelphia rematch in the Stanley Cup Finals.
Montreal met their longtime rival in Boston in the first round. The Bruins were led by the great defenseman Ray Borque and had 30-goal scorers in Keith Crowder and Charlie Simmer. They had the sixth-best defense in the NHL, but they didn’t have anyone that would match Roy in goal.
The young goalie got his postseason underway with a sweep of what was then a best-of-five series in the first round. Boston managed just six goals and Montreal was able to grind out wins of 3-1, 3-2 and 4-3. They got good news elsewhere—in the other Adams Division semifinal, Quebec had been upset by the Hartford Whalers. The Canadiens would have home ice for another round.
Hartford might have been last of the four Adams Division playoff teams, but they were pretty good in a balanced division that saw all five teams (Buffalo was the one to not make the playoffs) end up between 80-92 points. The Whalers had the fifth-best offense in the NHL, led by 45-goal scorer Sylvanian Turgeon and they got to Roy in Game 1, taking a 4-1 win.
Roy immediately got his game turned around, and Montreal won Game 2 by a 3-1 count and then reclaimed home ice in Game 3 with a 4-1 win. Roy continued to be great in Game 4, but the Canadiens lost a 2-1 overtime game that tied the series. The offense did its job in Game 5 with a 5-3 victory. Roy was back in form for Game 6, but got no support in a 1-0 loss. With the season on the line, Game 7 went to overtime and Montreal pulled out a 2-1 win.
It was a hair-raising survival, but more bracket breaks were coming Montreal’s way. The New York Rangers had upset Philadelphia and the conference finals would be Canadiens-Rangers. And for as well as Roy was now playing, the best goalie in hockey in 1986 was 22-year-old Vezina Trophy winner John Vanbiesbrouck. The Wales Conference would be decided by two rising stars in net.
What New York did not have was the ability to generate any offense, ranking 20th in the league in goals scorer. It enabled Roy to win a 2-1 due in the opener, and Montreal’s own attack was able to put pressure on Vanbiesbrouck in wins of 6-2 and 4-3 in overtime to put the Canadiens on the brink. The Ranger goalie went down fighting, producing a 2-0 shutout win, but Roy got the best of him in Game 5 with a 2-1 win. Montreal was returning to the Stanley Cup Finals for the first time since the dynasty ended in 1979.
And it was time for one more break in the bracket. Wayne Gretzky’s Edmonton Oilers had been to three straight Finals, won two straight Cups and were the best team in hockey in 1986. The Calgary Flames ousted Gretzky in the division finals and then survived a seven-game battle with the St. Louis Blues. It would be an all-Canada battle in the Stanley Cup Finals, the first since 1967.
Calgary’s 89 points in the regular season were slightly ahead of Montreal’s 87, so even this bracket break didn’t bring home ice advantage. The Flames had a deep and balanced offense that ranked second in scoring without one particular dominant player. And they had their own young goalie with a bright future ahead of him in 22-year-old Mike Vernon.
That deep offense hit Roy right away and Montreal lost the opener 5-2. The Canadiens fought Game 2 to a 2-2 tie through regulation and overtime began. It lasted all of nine seconds as Brian Skrudland scored immediately off the faceoff and Montreal had tied the series.
Montreal got to Vernon for five goals in Game 3, taking a 5-3 win and then Roy put his teammates on his back in a 1-0 Game 4 win that put the Canadiens on the verge of a title. They went to Calgary and finished the job, winning 4-3.
Roy’s numbers in the postseason were nothing short of spectacular. His save rate was 92.3% and he allowed just 1.92 goals per game. He was an easy choice for the Conn Smythe Award as MVP of the entire postseason.
The Montreal Canadiens were back on top of the hockey world and had briefly interrupted the Gretzky Dynasty in Edmonton. And Patrick Roy was just getting started on a career that would take him to the Hall of Fame.
The 1991 Pittsburgh Penguins were a team that came mostly out of nowhere. Even though Mario Lemieux was a rising star who won the MVP award in 1988 and finished in the top five each of the following two years, Lemieux only played 26 regular season games. The Penguins had missed the playoffs seven of the previous eight years. But it all came together at the right time in 1991.
Mark Recchi and Kevin Stevens were each 40-goal scorers, while center John Cullen and defenseman Paul Coffey were skilled at moving the puck. Another contributor who would eventually be a star was 18-year-old Jaromir Jagr, and everything added up to Pittsburgh having the second-best offense in the NHL.
Defense was problematic and Pittsburgh did not have a dominant regular season, but the 41-33-6 record was still good enough to win a balanced Patrick Division, have the third-best record in the Wales Conference (the East), and seventh best in the league overall.
The playoff run nearly ended before it began when the Penguins fell behind the New Jersey Devils three games to two, before a two-goal game from Stevens saved Game 6 and Pittsburgh then won a 4-0 shutout in the decisive game.
Pittsburgh lost the opener of the second round to the Washington Capitals and went to overtime in Game 2. It was defenseman Paul Coffey who ended up as the hero for the Pens, dishing four assists in a 7-6 win that turned the series around. Pittsburgh won the next three games and moved on to the conference finals.
The Boston Bruins had the best record in the NHL for the second straight season, and were looking to finally turn those President’s Trophies into Stanley Cups. The Bruins won the first two games of the conference finals and seemed in command. Then, when it was least expected, the suspect Pittsburgh defense came up big.
Tom Barrasso was in goal, and during the regular season he finished with a 3.59 Goals Against Average. The playoffs were a different story, as the 25-year-old came up clutch and ended with 2.60 GAA. Never was that more apparent or more important than Games 3 & 4 of the conference finals. Barrasso saved 56 of 58 shots in those two games, the Penguins won both and the tide had turned. The offense unloaded for 12 goals in Games 5 & 6 and Pittsburgh won the series in six games.
The breaks of the NHL playoffs worked in Pittsburgh’s favor at the 1991 Stanley Cup Finals. In spite of the Campbell Conference (the West) being stacked with better regular season teams than the East, it was that side of the bracket that turned chaotic. The Minnesota North Starswere the West’s seventh-best team and worse than every playoff team in the Wales Conference, but somehow played their way into the Finals.
Minnesota might have been outclassed, but Pittsburgh continued their pattern of making sure they did it the hard way. The Pens lost two of the first three games, but got wins of 5-3 and 6-4 to get control and then went up to the Twin Cities and hung an 8-0 rout on the North Stars, bringing the Stanley Cup to the Steel City.
Lemieux might not have been the regular season hero, but he knew the postseason, scoring 16 goals and distributing 28 assists, en route to the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP. The 1991 Pittsburgh Penguins brought their home city its first Stanley Cup.
The 1983 New York Islanders were no longer a dominant team, like they had been so often their run of three straight Stanley Cups from 1980-82. But the Isles were plenty good enough in the regular season and they were still great when it counted, winning a fourth straight Stanley Cup.
New York slipped into the lower half of the league in terms of offensive prowess. They still had a great scorer in Mike Bossy, whose 60 goals were third-best in the league and he was a 1st-team All-Star. The Isles also had center Bryan Trottier, with 34 goals/55 assists and 31-goal scorer John Tonelli. But there wasn’t depth to the attack and the Islanders ranked 15th in a 21-team league in scoring goals.
It was defense that kept the Isles rolling. They were the best in the league and had two premier goalies. The veteran Billy Smith and the youthful Roland Melanson split time and each finished in the top five among goalies in their Goals Against Average.
New York was sluggish out of the gate, with a 19-15-7 record at the New Year, but a 10-2-2 run in January got them in track. They closed the season with a 14-4-1 record over the last nineteen games and the final regular season mark was 42-26-12.
It was a good record and they had good momentum, but the Islanders were looking up at the Philadelphia Flyers in the Patrick Division, they were fourth in the Wales Conference (the East) and tied for seventh in the NHL overall. The rest of the league was smelling a chance to end the dynasty.
The playoff format took four teams from each division, and they played a divisional playoff to pair it down to the conference finals and ultimately the Stanley Cup Finals. The Islanders met the Washington Capitals in the Patrick Division semifinals, then a best-of-five round.
Washington had three 30-goal scorers, Dennis Maruk, Mike Gartner and Bob Carpenter, along with the fifth-best defense in the NHL. They stole a win in Nassau Coliseum, getting Game 2 by a 4-2 count after the Isles had won the opener 5-2. When the series went to the Beltway, the Islander offense heated up with wins of 6-2 and 6-3 to close it out.
New York then got a break, when Philadelphia was upset in three straight by the New York Rangers. A .500 team, the Rangers most notable talent was second-year head coach Herb Brooks, who had led the “Miracle On Ice” 1980 U.S. Olympic team to the gold medal.
When the Islander defense was in shutdown mode for 4-1 and 5-0 victories to open the series, it looked their Big Apple rival would be roadkill. But the Rangers rallied when the series shifted to Madison Square Garden and exploded offensively in a 7-6 win to take Game 3. Then they showed they could win a defensive fight, with a 3-1 win that knotted the series at two games apiece.
The Isles finally asserted themselves in the back end of the Patrick Division Finals. They unleashed at home for a 7-2 win, and then took Game 6 in the Garden by a 5-2 count.
There would be no more bracket breaks the rest of the way. In the Wales Conference Finals, New York had to meet the Boston Bruins, winners of the President’s Trophy for best regular-season record.
The Bruins had the second-best defense in the NHL, right behind the Isles, with an excellent young goaltender in Pete Peeters. They had the fifth-best offense, led by All-Rookie center Barry Pederson, with his 46 goals and 61 assists. The offense had depth, with Rick Middleton, Keith Crowder and Peter McNab. And a brilliant young defenseman named Ray Borque was already an established star at age 22.
New York came into Boston Garden and grabbed the series opener 5-2 before Boston won Game 2 by a 4-1 count. It was the middle games at Nassau that the Islanders took it over. Their subpar offense wasn’t supposed to go crazy against a top goalie and overall team defense, but the Islanders won Games 3 & 4 by scores and 7-3 and 8-3. Even though the dropped Game 5 back in Boston, New York came home and closed it out with one more offensive outburst, 8-4.
In front of their home fans, the Islanders had scored 23 goals in three games against an elite defense. That’s called taking over at playoff time.
There was one more big hurdle and it was the rising force out of the Campbell Conference (the West). Wayne Gretzky had been MVP of the NHL every year since breaking in at age 18 in 1980. His Edmonton Oilers, with the best record in the West, looked ready to finally claim their first championship.
Gretzky’s 71 goals led the league. Mark Messier, Glenn Andersen and Jari Kurri were all 40-plus goal scorers and defenseman Paul Coffey was a brilliant passer with 67 assists.
It set up an offense vs. defense battle. Edmonton had the best offense in the NHL, but a middling defense and goaltending situation. The games that followed established this lesson—when you have a choice between a veteran team that plays defense and a rising young team with an explosive offense and great player, go ahead and bet on the vets who can play D.
The “time for veterans” theme had been established right from the start of the playoffs for New York when they went almost exclusively with the 32-year-old Smith in goal. And when he hung a 2-0 shutout on the mighty Gretzky in Game 1 the tone for the Stanley Cup Finals was established.
New York consistently slowed the game down, controlled the pace and never let Edmonton get unleashed. The Islanders took Game 2 by a 6-3 count. They came home and won the middle games 5-1 and 4-2. Smith won the Conn Smythe Award, as MVP of the entire postseason.
Edmonton would get its day on the sun—quite a few of them in fact, and starting next year. But the great veterans of the 1983 New York Islanders basked in glory one more time with another Stanley Cup.