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What if Cam Neely never got hurt in the ‘91 Conference Finals?

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Boston’s last realistic chance at winning a Stanley Cup in the 20th century came to an ignominious end at the knee of an unrepentant swede. But what if it didn’t?

Pittsburgh Penguins Vs. Boston Bruins
What if a moment like this never changed the complexion of a series the Bruins were winning?
Photo by Tom Herde/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

This week is “What if...?” week across SB Nation. It’s a time to take a look at days gone by and wonder how things could have gone differently.


One of the great tragedies of Ray Bourque and Cam Neely’s time in Boston is that for all their accolades, neither actively won Lord Stanley as players while wearing Black and Gold. For much of the 80’s, they ran into the great brain ensmoothening that usually occurs when Boston plays Montreal, and were bounced unceremoniously, and that stuck in their craw for quite some time until they finally got over that enormous hump and beat them, and in 1989-90 went to the Stanley Cup Final...

...just in time to run directly into Mark Messier and Jari Kurri proving they could win without Wayne. Smacking directly into a team of destiny like a bug hitting a windshield.

1990 Stanley Cup Finals - Game 5: Edmonton Oilers v Boston Bruins Photo by B Bennett/Getty Images

But that’s okay! They come back in ‘90-’91 and are firing on all cylinders with their one two punch of Cam Neely and Ray Bourque, supplemented with some Craig Janney, a peppering of Ken Hodge, and a dash of some garbage time Randy Burridge goals, among a host of players who helped get Boston right back to where they were in the previous year, and a fun filled pair of wars from the Habs and the Whalers brought the B’s to the Eastern Conference Finals, where they met the Penguins. And at first, things were going alright: The Penguins were a tough opponent, but so was Boston, and the first two games gave every indication that while they were every bit as advertised, they had some significant trouble keeping up with Neely, Janney, Bourque, and surprise stepper-upper Vladimir Ruzicka for the first pair of games, with the Pens losing 6-3 and 5-4 respectively.

Then Game 3 happened. Ulf Samuelsson takes Cam Neely out of the game with a vicious, unsafe knee-to-knee hit that caused him to leave the game, and his noticeably hobbled mobility and incensed state over not getting a call over the hits radically changed the way the series was played, and the rest, as they say, is history. Tragic, tragic history.

Neely’s play suffered mightily after the injury, and without a fully healthy Cam, the Bruins were effectively short one of their very best forwards, and it showed, solifidying in him having to leave the series in game 6 due to the continued mounting damage. The Bruins were denied a chance at the finals, at a shot at finally getting Ray Bourque his cup. As we’d later learn, it was the last shot they had at getting him one while he wore black and gold.

So our simple question is this: What if Cam didn’t get hurt by Ulf Samuelsson in Game 3 of the ‘91 Conference finals? What if Samuelsson sticks to merely attempting big hits or late checks that don’t cause Neely’s condition to flare up, or simply misses every attempted dirty thing he tried during that time and ultimately cannot harm Neely?

Would they have beaten the ‘90-’91 Penguins in the Prince of Wales Conference Finals?

Well, if they kept Neely in Game 3, there definitely was a better chance of the Bruins coming back, and it was clear; even if Pittsburgh got that win, they still were having a lot of trouble keeping the Boston Bruins back.

More importantly, it keeps Mike Milbury from responding by being...well...Mike Milbury. But we’ll get into that. Let’s do three scenarios for this:

Scenario 1: Usual suspects bring Boston back in Game 3, then complete the sweep on May 7th.

The most optimistic and most unlikely scenario, but had they actually done it, it would’ve almost certainly caused the Pens’ locker room morale to plummet. Say what you will, but the Pens played Game 3 like the organization’s entire future was on the line, and that wasn’t too far from the truth. Playing like that and then getting shocked by the same four or five players again would have been devastating. Legendary Pens coach Bob Johnson was quoted after Game 2 as saying “We’ll beat this team. I’ll say it right now, we’ll beat this team.”, and getting comeback’d would’ve completely taken out the foundation of his words which carried quite a bit of weight, and hollowed out the spirits of Pittsburgh. Game 4 would’ve been more of a formality at that point than a competition.

Scenario 2: Lose Game 3, come back big in Game 4, Win in 5.

Regretfully in either scenario, depth center Dave Poulin isn’t spared his groin pull, so he’s probably not around for this Game 4, but Cam Neely is at 100%, and that’s important. Like any NHL team who just lost a depth guy in the playoffs and by all accounts got embarrassed after two playoff victories, the team decides they want to win it for Dave, and come back to face the Pens at full-throttle. It’s likely closer than you’d want, given that Andy Moog was coming off of being dehydrated in Game 3, but ultimately Boston prevails because try as they might, Pittsburgh’s injured stars cannot keep up with Bourque, Janney, and Neely.

Most importantly, because Milbury is not melting down over a penalty not being called on Ulf Samuelsson because Samuelsson cannot connect on those famous borderline hits of his, he doesn’t populate the lineup with goons in order to send a message, and promptly gets a stick of ACME dynamite blown off in his face for his trouble.

Scenario 3: Game 7 of “The War for the Prince of Wales”

Game 3 sparks a dramatic change in the series not just from one team sitting on the head of another, but turning it into an all-out war where each game is it’s own little mini-saga. Ray Bourque narrowly avoids concussion from a missed elbow. Mark Recchi and Glen Wesley have it out, Paul Coffee’s dramatic return, and Samuelsson finally gets what’s coming to him in Game 6 where Neely finally gets a hold of him and beats him like a rented mule until both have to be separated. It’s chaos, it’s barely hockey, it’s agony for anyone with a heart condition and especially agonizing for the goaltending coaches of either team.

It’s absolutely the best series of this playoffs.

Game 7 ends with Ray Bourque capping off a 2-goal third period, and the Bruins head to the Stanley Cup Finals.

Ray Bourque & Cam Neely Photo by Bruce Bennett Studios via Getty Images/Getty Images

Would the Bruins have actually won the 1991 Stanley Cup if they’d beaten the Pens?

More than likely. And that’s the part that hurts.

One thing you have to understand about the western conference at the time is that there were genuinely extremely talented teams scattered throughout, but nobody expected the absurd amount of luck that the Minnesota North Stars, a team that finished well under .500, managed to have to get them to the final that year. All three series leading up to the final were extremely lucky circumstances that either saw them stun a team much better than they were in six games (Chicago, St. Louis), and take advantage of a powerhouse finally crumbling under the weight of it’s losses (Edmonton). They were punching way above their paygrade for sure...but when it came time to face the best of the east, it was clear that there were damning flaws in their game plan (relying on special teams being a big one) that ultimately doomed them.

Sure, the series would’ve likely been a much closer one than anybody expected, but the regular season series did not give the impression that the North Stars would’ve handled it well, as it ended with 1-0-2, with the ties coming from Minnesota clawing their way back in late in the third, and the win Boston picked up from them being a 6-2 bludgeoning. A playoff-version of Janney, Ruzicka (who woke right the hell up this post-season), Neely, and Bourque, most of which would’ve been at the height of their powers, high off of beating the Pens, Whalers, and Habs in extended series, would’ve almost certainly buried Bloomington, MN’s boys in green and gold. Let’s say it’s almost the same as the real life ‘91 final and say...it happens in six. The Globe runs a big headline the next day that shows Ray Bourque holding up the cup that only has one word on it: “FINALLY!”

What does it change in the history of the team and the league?:

A couple of important things.

Obviously, it gives everyone that catharsis of Ray Bourque finally getting his Stanley Cup in Boston, and ends the drought after 20 years instead of almost 40. A beautiful moment of someone who unequivocally deserved it finally getting his storybook ending after almost a decade of trying, and then likely gracefully retires as a Bruin in 2001, rather than be traded in 1999 to go chase glory with the Avs. What does likely change quite a bit is that the Samuelsson hits likely don’t cause Neely’s hip condition to flare up and certainly doesn’t cause part of his quad to become partially ossified, allowing him to remain mobile and a scoring threat well into the 90’s, and likely keeping the team competitive and less of an afterthought or also-ran, maybe even finishing his career in the early 2000’s, and possibly having another close crack at glory later down the line before his degenerative hip issues finally claim his career for good.

Quite possibly a major change is that Neely’s injury doesn’t force team management to try and find a quick-fix replacement in scorers in ‘92 that eventually ends up being the Bonanza Line of Juneau, Oates, and Kvartalnov. Or maybe, possibly fuming with vengeance over probably losing to that year’s version of the Penguins in the same situation, they pick at least 2/3rds of this line up in order to blanket the Wales Conference in rubber for daring to kick a moderately healthy Cam Neely out of the playoffs too early. But that’s merely fan-theorizing. Point is, Neely has a longer career, probably breaks some scoring record, gets his number retired in his last game, we all have a big cry about it, and then he joins the front office from there.

It also drastically changes the reputation of the Bruins’ coach: Mike Milbury.

Boston Bruins Coach Mike Milbury Photo by Frank O’Brien/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

Milbury is...a contentious figure, let’s call it. He embodies many of the worst stereotypes of the “hockey man”, is credited as basically the worst Islanders GM ever, a firm believer in the place of physicality over nearly everything else in the game, and makes NBCSN broadcasts feel like heroin withdrawal every time he opens his mouth. If he had a Stanley Cup to his name however, and kept the course that got him past the first two games of the ‘91 conference finals without losing his goddamn mind over Ulf Samuelsson, it’s clear that whatever executive powers he would’ve held after willingly giving up the reigns in the wake of the ‘91 Wales Conference Finals might’ve either never come to pass, since he would be a president’s trophy and Stanley Cup winner within his first two years as a head coach and could possibly be coaxed into continuing down that path, or he’s snatched away much earlier to try and recapture that glory with a different team. As we’ve learned from guys like Randy Carlyle, a cup ring can guarantee you a job anywhere.

Or, in the timeline where this “what if” is accomplished via a monkey’s paw, The B’s get everything that the Islanders did under his reign except far worse because he starts earlier and is probably given more leash because of the cup ring. A team brought to it’s highest point laid low by it’s coach who thought he could architect the team better.

What If?s can be scary like that. Unfortunately, there will be one thing that will remain abundantly clear regardless of how you “what if?” this series...Ulf Samuelsson will always be a dick.

But this “What If?” is unfortunately, tied forever to him. It’s one of those things where we learn that even in a sport ostensibly about teamwork...it only takes a single player to screw things up for everybody.


Poll

If Cam never got hurt, would Boston be Stanley cup champions in 1991?

This poll is closed

  • 87%
    Absolutely.
    (127 votes)
  • 12%
    No, they still had other issues
    (18 votes)
145 votes total Vote Now