There Will Be Blood: The 1991 Bruins Penguins Series

Two recent Stanley Cup winners in the Boston Bruins and Pittsburgh Penguins are set to faceoff this Saturday in what is expected to be a memorable Eastern Conference Finals regardless of the outcome. The Penguins are stacked with offensive talent in Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Chris Kunitz, Pascal Dupuis, James Neal, and Jarome Iginla, while the Bruins are loaded with players returning from their 2011 Stanley Cup run in captain Zdeno Chara, Patrice Bergeron, Milan Lucic, David Krejci, Brad Marchand, and Nathan Horton to name a few stand out players from each team.

This is not the first time these two organizations faced off in a critical conference final series, although it has been a while. In 1991, these two teams faced off in what was called the Wales Conference finals, the equivalent to the modern Eastern Conference finals.

Boston Bruins forward Cam Neely. (Sports Library)
Boston Bruins forward Cam Neely. (Sports Library)

The Boston Bruins were in the middle of a great run of successful regular seasons led by Cam Neely, Ray Bourque, and Andy Moog. They won the Adams division in two consecutive years and reached the Stanley Cup final in 1988 and 1990, where they ultimately came up short to the Edmonton Oilers both times.

The 1990-91 season for the Bruins was simply a continuation of their recent success and close encounters with a championship. Their roster remained largely unchanged, with a few additions of rookie Ken Hodge, pugilist Chris Nilan, grinder Vladamir Ruzicka, and rookie from the University of New Hampshire Jeff Lazaro. Petri Skriko was the only mid-season acquisition for the Bruins.

The Pittsburgh Penguins were an organization struggling to find consistency even after drafting young phenom Mario Lemieux in 1984. By 1991, the Pens missed the playoffs 7 out of the previous 8 seasons and were on their 6th head coach in 5 years. Mario Lemieux was out for a large part of the regular season due to back issues from the previous year. There was significant roster turn over, with Ron Francis, Ulf Samuelsson, Grant Jennings, Larry Murphy, Scott Young, Jiri Hrdina, Gordie Roberts, and Peter Taglianetti all being traded to the team throughout the season.

Mario Lemieux (courtesy of the Pittsburgh Penguins)
Pittsburgh Penguins forward Mario Lemieux. (courtesy of the Pittsburgh Penguins)

This Penguins team was not a guarantee for the playoffs with all of this instability, but a young Mark Reechi helped the cause by leading the team in scoring in Lemieux’s absence, along with significant contributions from Kevin Stevens, defenseman Paul Coffey, and rookie Jaromir Jagr.

By the end of the season, the Boston Bruins won the Adams division again with 44 wins, 24 losses, and 12 ties (100 points). They scored 299 goals and had 264 goals against. Pittsburgh won their division as well with 41 wins, 33 losses, and 6 ties (88 points). They scored a whopping 344 goals, but were near the bottom of the league with 305 goals against. The Bruins were favorites for the cup that year due to their playoff seasoned veteran roster and the Penguins were in the 2nd tier of teams vying for the cup.

’90-91 Boston Bruins Player Statistics:

’90-91 Pittsburgh Penguins Player Statistics:

The 1991 Wales Conference Finals

The Boston Bruins entered the Wales Conference finals after finishing off the Hartford Whalers (cue the Brass Bonanza) in six games during the first round, then edging out Les Canadiens de Montréal in a very grueling 7 game series, where both teams traded win for win in the first six games (2 of which went to overtime) then squeaking out game 7 at home 2 to 1. The Pittsburgh Penguins entered this third round series after recovering from two series deficits in round 1 to beat the Devils in 7 games, then rolling over the Washington Capitals in 5 games.

Many favored the Bruins to win the series due to their well rounded style of play and consistency in the defensive end. The Penguins path to success was to play a stronger two way game along with closely checking Cam Neely and his line.

The series started off as many expected with the Boston Bruins taking game one 6 to 3 at the Boston Garden and edging past the Penguins in game 2, 5 to 4 in overtime.

Game 2 Highlights from the Old Boston Garden:

Following the loss in game 2, the Pittsburgh Press reported Kevin Stevens saying, “We’ll beat this team. I’ll say it right now, we’ll beat this team.” With Stevens likely feeling the weight of his words, he scored the first goal in game 3 of what turned out to be a 4-1 win for Pittsburgh at the Igloo. To Bruins fans, this game is less remembered for being the first loss of the series, but more so for the infamous knee on knee hit by Ulf Samuelsson on Cam Neely. This hit radically changed the series, Cam Neely’s career due to knee ailments that would plague him until his early retirement, and ultimately the future of the Bruins. With no penalty called on the hit, Bruins coach Mike Milbury became enraged on the bench, but failed to change the minds of the referees in the game. Neely was largely ineffective for the remainder of the series.

Mike Milbury understandably attempted to seek retribution for the hit on Neely, by dressing enforcers Allen Pedersen, Bob Beers, Nevin Markwart, and Lyndon Byers for game 4. The game plan did not work in Boston’s favor as they again lost on the road 4 to 1, tying the series 2-2. In retrospect, some could argue that Milbury’s plan for revenge and extreme physicality distracted the Bruins from playing the rest of their game.

Game 3 Highlights and Game 4 Preview:

The Bruins attempted to reorganize at home for game 5, but the Penguins rode the momentum from games 3 and 4 in to the small confines of the Boston Garden rink. Kevin Stevens scored 2 goals with 3 assists and Lemieux scored a goal with 3 assists, leading the Penguins to a blow out 7 to 2 victory, leaving the Boston crowd stunned.

The teams returned to Pittsburgh for game 6, where the Bruins started off well, building a 2-0 lead, but goals from Larry Murphy, Phil Bourque, and Gordie Roberts gave the Penguins a 3-2 lead. Don Sweeney scored a clutch 3rd period goal to tie the game up for Boston. Ultimately future Bruin Mark Recchi scored the game winner that clinched the series. Lemieux, who played a part in all of the goals that night put in an open netter in the final seconds to truly put away the Bruins. The Pittsburgh Civic Center went in to total pandemonium.

Game 6 Highlights:

The Penguins went on to win their first Stanley Cup against the Minnesota North Stars in 6 games, beating them 8-0 in the deciding game. The following season, an even stronger and more experienced Penguins team swept the injury riddled Bruins in the conference final en route to their 2nd straight cup.

The Penguins became the toast of the league and were very competitive throughout much of the 90’s. They went through a brief rebuilding phase early in the last decade until they drafted Sidney Crosby and quickly assembled the competitive team they have now. The Bruins fell in to disarray going through two rebuilding phases, one in the late 90’s where they drafted Joe Thornton and Sergei Samsonov and another in the middle of the last decade where they traded those away two players and built a competitive team around Zdeno Chara.

The 2013 playoff series has the potential to be one for the ages as both teams are deep and talented recent cup winners. In this year’s edition of this match up the Penguins are favored due to their potent offense, but the Bruins defensive depth and extensive grit throughout the line up could be a wild card in the series. Either way the next four to seven games are soon to become the next chapter in playoff hockey lore.