Wrote this about 20 years ago for the 10-year anniversary of the 1989-90 President’s Trophy Boston Bruins team that came up short in their quest to bring the first Stanley Cup back to the Hub in 18 years. It would take the B’s another 21 years, but at the time, it was just another promising group that did everything but win the championship. I originally wrote the piece in 2000 to commemorate the 10-year anniversary of the team’s only (at the time) regular season championship, but have updated it in the years since with a new intro today and thanks to later access to players who were a part of the club to insert quotes and memories of that team. Given that it is a complete season recap including playoffs, the word count comes in at around 9,000 words, so we’ll break this up into 3 parts over the next few days.- KL
The Boston Bruins are one of the National Hockey League’s more storied franchises, yet they’ve also been somewhat star-crossed in their near century of existence, coming up short in numerous opportunities to capture more than the six Stanley Cup championships in team history. Most recently, the B’s and their fans saw heartbreak in 2019, losing a decisive game 7 at home to the St. Louis Blues.
30 years ago, another Boston hockey club took their fans on a dizzying ride and tantalized the region with an unforgettable run that had more than its share of peaks and valleys after a terrific regular season. It almost ended before it began with a near-upset at the hands of a younger, upstart Hartford Whalers team, followed by another memorable matchup against an archrival and an extended run through the Stanley Cup playoffs.
This is their story.
From 1968 through 1996, the Bruins went to the NHL playoffs every year, winning the Stanley Cup twice. From 1970 to 1990, the Boston Bruins made it to the Stanley Cup Final series seven times. Boston’s inability to go the distance after 1972 despite always icing extremely competitive teams made up of both skilled and yeoman players, created a legion of rabid fans who saw their teams get close, but whether it was dynasties in Montreal, Long Island or Alberta, were still waiting for their own parade as the 1980’s drew to a close.
Perhaps the one Bruins team that epitomized Boston’s blue collar identity was the 1989-90 club that redefined the term “overachievers,” finishing first overall in the regular season after making a magical Cinderella run two years before. They beat their playoff nemesis Montreal Canadiens in the Adams Division final, and would go on to face the Edmonton Oilers later in spring, who were looking for a fourth Stanley Cup championship since 1984. Ultimately, Wayne Gretzky’s machine was too much for the upstart B’s, but two years later, the Great One was now residing in Tinseltown and the face of the Oilers was now captain Mark Messier. The two teams appeared to be on another collision course for May hockey.
Could Boston avoid a similar fate in 1990?
That quest began a full year earlier in May, 1989, with the Bruins in some turmoil. Their coach, Terry O’Reilly, who had long skated in front of the Boston faithful and forever won the hearts of the legions of fans through his seek-and-destroy style as both player and coach, dropped a bomb by announcing his retirement just two seasons removed from leading another overachieving team to a finals appearance, their first since 1978. O’Reilly’s replacement was another component from the Big, Bad Bruins teams of the 1970’s and 80’s, albeit one with a more modest pedigree. Walpole, Massachusetts native Mike Milbury took the reigns and became the 18th head coach in team history.
The youthful Milbury was fresh off a successful stint as coach of Boston’s farm team, the Maine Mariners. Milbury had hung up the skates as a Bruins rearguard just three years prior to his hiring and announced that things would be different because he no longer was a player, but a coach. He was encouraged by a nucleus of All-Star players all in their prime or just entering into it and although he made no bold predictions, Milbury had the utmost confidence in his balanced team of younger players and veterans.
The 1989-90 Bruins were a balanced team indeed. Led by two-time Norris Trophy winner Raymond Bourque who was all of 28 when the season began, he inherited the mantle of leadership from Rick Middleton, who left the team after the 1988 playoffs, making Bourque the captain and unquestioned leader now, and for the next decade. Bourque’s blend of offense and defense made him the quintessential NHL defenseman: he could do it all.
The Bruins also boasted a fearsome sniper in Cam Neely, who epitomized that bruising style of brawn and skill that Boston fans had become accustomed to over the years. Acquired by Harry Sinden from Vancouver three years earlier in a heist of a trade, Neely’s career went into overdrive, having scored 115 goals since joining the B’s. At age 24, he looked primed to have an even bigger breakout offensively.
In net, Andy Moog was the primary backstop for the Bruins. Moog was a diminutive, but fiery goaltender who had also been a three-time Stanley Cup winner with the Edmonton Oilers, opting to leave in 1987 when it became evident that Grant Fuhr was the No. 1 playoff option for that team in net. After Moog spent the year with the Canadian National and Olympic Teams, Sinden swung a deal with Glen Sather to bring Moog to the Bruins in March, 1988.
To complement the solid core trio, the Bruins boasted depth up front with young playmaking pivot and former U.S. Olympian Craig Janney, veteran agitator Ken Linseman, the four Bob’s: Carpenter, Sweeney, Joyce and Gould, a strong two-way winger who joined the Bruins in a summer trade from Washington for journeyman defender Alain Cote. Randy Burridge, or “Stump” as the smallish winger was affectionately known to his teammates and fans alike, had a real knack for putting the puck in the net, and was coming off his first NHL 30-goal campaign. Pugilist Lyndon Byers provided the bulk of the toughness chores after Jay Miller had been sent to Los Angeles with Steve Kasper as part of the deal for Carpenter the year before.
On defense, Bourque was aided by Garry Galley, an accomplished veteran in his own right with the ability to play an offensive game. 1987 first-rounder Glen Wesley had made the Bruins as an 18 year old and was coming off of a 19-goal sophomore campaign that saw him named as a reserve player to the 1989 All-Star game in Edmonton. Allen Pedersen was a young giant on the blue line with virtually no puck/offensive game, while the smallish Greg Hawgood helped to compensate. The former high-scoring blueliner with the WHL’s Kamloops Blazers scored more goals as a rookie defenseman the year before (16) in just 56 games than Bobby Orr did his first season as a Bruin in 1966-67, and to this day, is the second-most goals by a Bruins rookie to Bourque’s 18 in 1979-80.
In goal, Moog and veteran Rejean Lemelin were to split the duties and that suited most just fine. Moog was younger and looked at as the team’s goaltender of the present and future, yet Lemelin had succeeded where other stalwart Bruins netminders such as Gerry Cheevers and Eddie Johnston had failed; he beat the hated Montreal Canadiens in the 1988 playoffs, the first time the Bruins had defeated the Habs in the postseason since 1943. The tandem formed what many experts considered was the best one-two goalie combination in hockey and as the season progressed, Milbury would lean heavily on the services of both veteran netminders.
The 1989-90 year started off the right way with a 5-4 victory over the Pittsburgh Penguins, with Neely netting a pair of goals and Bourque scoring his first of the year on opening night at the Boston Garden. Unfortunately, the Bruins only won one game in their next five, but that second win was an all-important 2-0 shutout win over Montreal on October 9th. The Bruins struggled on their first road trip of the season losing two and tying one before Carpenter beat Los Angeles Kings’ netminder and former teammate Kelly Hrudey on a rebound late in the 3rd period to earn a 3-2 Boston victory. Moog and the Bruins shut out the Edmonton Oilers three nights later with Finnish rookie and Clarkson University alum Jarmo Kekalainen scoring his first NHL goal on former Bruin Bill Ranford and Carpenter getting a score in his second-straight game.
During all of this, the Bruins showed the ability to win games, but were not performing very consistently. They seemed to be looking for a big break, something to get them on a roll towards the top of the standings. On November 2, 1989, they found what they were looking for when Gretzky and the Kings came to the Garden. The teams traded offense, but late in the game, the Bruins trailed the Kings 4-3. All seemed lost, but Milbury pulled his goaltender for the extra skater and with veteran and Hall of Fame Kings defenseman Larry Robinson in front of the net, Boston’s 1988 first round pick Rob Cimetta scored to even the score. Then, local standout and Boston College alumnus Bob Sweeney beat Kings goalie Mario Gosselin with a backhand in overtime to give the Bruins the 5-4 win and momentum, as the team rattled off an eight-game unbeaten string. During that stretch two victories stood out above all others, and no doubt served to solidify the team’s confidence in one another.
November 16 marked a turning point of sorts for the Bruins, as they found themselves down 2-0 at home to the Montreal Canadiens, Stanley Cup Finalists the year before and the ones who had unceremoniously dumped the Bruins from the 1989 postseason in a six game series. The Bruins had played a listless and uninspired game all evening and as the time ticked down on the clock, fans began to sense a Patrick Roy shutout win and began to leave the building.
Soon, they would find themselves rushing back to their seats, as the big guns delivered. Bourque got things going with one of his signature slap shots, winding up and cranking the puck through Roy’s five-hole to cut the lead in half. 19 seconds later, Neely took an Brickley pass in the slot in front of the Montreal goal and fired it into the net to knot the game up at 2 goals apiece.
As if the Garden crowd wasn’t charged up enough at that point, Wesley sent the Bruins faithful into a frenzy when he picked off a poor Brent Gilchrist pass in the neutral zone, took advantage of veteran defenseman Craig Ludwig stumbling at the Montreal blue line, and streaked in on Roy, firing the puck through the netminder’s five-hole to send the building into complete pandemonium. The Bruins had scored three goals in 57 seconds to earn a 3-2 victory and make quite a statement in the process. Said Milbury to assembled media afterwards: “Montreal sagged for a minute and that was enough. The identity that’s established is that we can beat anybody.”
Dafoomie posted a nice cut of this game on YouTube- the fireworks begin at 6:40 of the video if you want to skip the preliminaries. The late great Fred Cusick and Derek Sanderson with the call…
Two nights later, the New Jersey Devils were in town led by head coach John Cunniff, a former assistant with Boston under O’Reilly. The Devils took it to the Bruins and mounted an early 4-1 lead until a late Burridge goal in the second frame trimmed the score to 4-2 going into the final 20 minutes of play. At that point it became the Cam and Andy Show, as Neely and Bruins character forward Brickley scored four goals to send the Devils down in defeat. For Brickley, it was his first and only NHL hat trick, the final goal scored into an empty net. For Bruins fans, it became clear that something special was going on, and at that point, talk began to center around Boston grabbing hold of the top spot in the league standings and not letting go.
After the win, and sensing something special could be brewing with this Boston club, Sinden peddled a struggling Bob Joyce, one of the heroes of Boston’s unlikely 1988 Stanley Cup drive, to Washington in exchange for the experienced Dave Christian, a former 40-goal man who had been a member of the 1980 U.S. Olympic Miracle on Ice Team that won Gold at Lake Placid. Christian made a potent offense even deadlier, while bringing a wealth of veteran savvy and knowledge to the dressing room. Christian didn’t take long to make an impact, scoring in his first game as a Bruin.
The Bruins slipped a bit in December, but on the 29th, they got a huge game in net from Lemelin and a 4-3 win over the Buffalo Sabres earned the team sole possession of first place in the overall standings.
Although their fans weren’t completely sold on this team being able to hold the NHL’s top spot, as the 1980’s came to a close and a new decade dawned in January, the B’s would prove to the Boston faithful that they were a legitimate championship contender.