Before there was Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin & Co. squaring off against Milan Lucic, Patrice Bergeron, Zdeno Chara etc., in the Eastern Conference finals in 2013, there was an epic matchup between the Bruins and Penguins in the Wales Conference finals in 1991.
In the first two games — both Boston wins — there was a healthy Cam Neely barreling down right wing, Ray Bourque playing his usual yeoman minutes, Craig Janney setting the table at center, and Andy Moog standing strong in goal despite battling the flu.
The Penguins boasted a loaded team featuring Mario Lemieux, Kevin Stevens, Tom Barrasso, Ron Francis, Jaromir Jagr, Joe Mullen, Ulf Samuelsson, and Larry Murphy.
The Game 2 hero was Vladimir “Rosie’’ Ruzicka, who potted the overtime winner and assisted on Boston’s other four goals in a 5-4 victory.
Despite the deep hole, Stevens made a bold prediction. The former Silver Lake Regional and Boston College standout predicted that the Penguins wouldn’t lose another game in the series.
“We can beat this team,’’ he said. “And we will beat this team. I’ll say it right now, we’ll beat them.’’
He turned out to be correct, as the Penguins won four straight to reach the Final, then beat the Minnesota North Stars in six games to capture the first Stanley Cup in franchise history.
Not only did the Bruins lose Game 3 in Pittsburgh by a 4-1 score, they lost Moog to dehydration and Dave Poulin to a groin pull. But the most dramatic development was an injury to Neely at 14:30 of the second period when he took a leg check from Samuelsson.
Neely tried to come back from the hit but exited the game at 6:55 of the third period. As everyone in Boston knows, that check changed the trajectory of the Bruins’ season, of Neely’s career, and of the franchise’s future.
Then-coach Mike Milbury came out firing on all cylinders, taking full aim at the Penguins coach.
“As for Bob Johnson and his seven-point plan, one of his points has been to make sure to take as many cheap shots at key players as possible,’’ Milbury said. “The Professor of Hockey — as he so often projects himself to be — is also subtly a Professor of Goonism. And we can’t take that anymore.’’
Milbury banged the Igloo glass with a stick when no penalty was called on Samuelsson, and the war of words heated up with Johnson saying, “Milbury wants to be the Bobby Knight of hockey.’’
Milbury retorted that Johnson’s ego was so huge “he thinks he and only he knows anything about hockey. That’s what’s irksome to me, that he thinks he knows all there is to know about hockey.’’
‘We all felt cheated’
Some of Milbury’s bluster was designed to take the pressure off his team as the Penguins went on to tie the series at two games apiece, but some of it was outrage that Neely, who continued to play, was clearly ailing.
“That’s just Mike being Mike,’’ recalled Bourque. “Any playoff series, especially some that get heated at times, Mike would certainly have his players’ backs and come out front and center regardless of something that happened or maybe a referee’s call and he’d stick his neck out.
“He was pretty calculated, some of the things he did in that way, not only the playoffs but other times as well.’’
The loss of Neely and the long medical road he faced on his way to numerous comebacks was both inspiring and difficult to witness.
“That took a lot of wind out of our sails,’’ said Bourque. “Cam came back from that but it was a crushing blow to the organization and the team and to Cam. He was going so well at the time, probably the best power forward in the league and doing really well.
“He was at a really good age where everything had kind of come together for him, and then this set him back in terms of how he had to deal with that injury and how hard he had to work and how dedicated he had to be in his rehab.
“Even after all that, he couldn’t play a full schedule. He had to schedule time to recover and not do too much. Not having him at 100 percent or not for 100 percent of the games, he always had to deal with something from the effect of that hit.
“When it affects one of your best players, it affects the whole thing.’’
The Bruins traded for center Adam Oates in February of 1992 with the idea that he could work the same magic with Neely that he had with Brett Hull in St. Louis. It finally happened in 1993-94 when Neely scored 50 goals in 44 games and wound up with 74 points in 49 contests.
“We all felt cheated,’’ said Bourque. “When you recognize what kind of player Adam was, how special he was — really, he was probably the most underrated player I ever played with — and how much fun it would’ve been for everybody, especially Cam to have a good run with Adam.
“It would’ve been incredible, I think. That’s the sad thing. Not knowing or not being able to live that experience, which I think would’ve been a really good one.’’
A door closed
Neely, now the Bruins president, has reflected on how things might have been had the Samuelsson hit not happened.
“Quite some time has passed,’’ said Neely, chuckling. “Everybody has these things that have happened to them in their lives, whether you’re a professional athlete or not, that you can look back on and see how it has changed [your life’s path].
“There was an interesting movie, ‘Sliding Doors,’ where everything followed from making the train and they also shot it not making the train and how everything followed from that.
“I’ve never gone back and said, ‘What if it didn’t happen?’ Because you can find a nice story by saying, ‘What if it didn’t happen?’ But maybe if it didn’t happen, there would have been something else that happened, right?’’
Getting a taste of playing with Oates did lead Neely to consider what scoring damage they could do together rather than the physical damage he was dealing with instead.
“I certainly have reflected on the fact that if it didn’t happen, if I was still playing the way I was playing prior to getting hurt like that, and then Adam coming, who knows what could’ve happened?’’ said Neely.
“There’s a good chance it could’ve been really good. It was good in spurts but it wasn’t the longevity I think it really could’ve been.’’
Rematch in 1992
The Bruins and Penguins met again in the 1992 conference finals, which was, in a word, a mismatch. Neely was sidelined, Bourque was dealing with a broken right middle finger thanks to a Shayne Corson slash, and Lemieux was battling a broken left hand courtesy of an Adam Graves slash. Bourque and Lemieux both returned for Game 2.
Despite the death of Johnson in November 1991, a change in ownership, and a large turnover in personnel tied to dumping salary, the Penguins swept the Bruins in four games. A talent infusion of Olympians — Joe Juneau, Ted Donato, and Steve Heinze — couldn’t stem the tide for Boston.
“That really sucked for me,’’ said Bourque. “Just going to the doctor and trying to fix a cast that would fit around my stick. It was tough.
“It’s tough enough to play against Mario when you’re 100 percent healthy. But I had to go in there and play with a banged-up hand. We just didn’t match up that well the second time around. The first time, we gave them a good run. But it was disappointing going down four straight.’’
That year, Neely had been limited to just nine regular-season games.
Perhaps the most memorable moment of the series was when Milbury, who had taken over the assistant general manager position, gave referee Denis Morel a tongue-lashing in a hallway at the Igloo after the Bruins got down, two games to none. His 27-second, 11-expletive tirade, which was aired on all three local Boston networks, earned him a gross misconduct penalty and fine.
Stevens scored four goals in a 5-1 Game 3 win, and the Penguins closed out Boston by the same score in Game 4. First-year Bruins coach Rick Bowness was dismissed after a year in which he worked magic by sweeping the Canadiens in the division finals — after cutting-and-pasting together a lineup that included 55 players suiting up through the course of the year.
The Penguins, meanwhile, swept the Chicago Blackhawks in the finals for their second straight Stanley Cup.
More than two decades later, the Penguins and Bruins meet again. Many consider Pittsburgh the prohibitive favorite. But not everyone.
“There’s no way you can count the Bruins out because of the depth they have, the confidence in how they play and how they find ways to shut down teams,’’ said Bourque. “If they bring their skating legs into this series, I think people may be very surprised by how this series goes.’’
For Neely, he believes in the team and has enjoyed his role as president and affecting the franchise in that way.
“It’s extremely satisfying, we have a good group here,’’ said Neely. “We’re all pulling in the same direction.
“I know there were a number of years leading up to 2007 where things in Boston here for the Bruins weren’t going as well as everyone would’ve liked.
“It’s an Original Six franchise with a deep-rooted fan base. We’ve seen what happens when there’s a team on the ice that has opportunities to win championships, which is what everybody wants.
“It’s been very gratifying to be part of a group that has helped get the organization back to where people are excited about it and talking about it and want to watch it.’’