Cam Neely’s expression was a mix of bewilderment and disbelief when Game 1 of the Stanley Cup final ended with the Boston Bruins losing in triple overtime at the United Center. It was the look of a man who had seen this sort of thing before and certainly didn’t wish to do so again.
“We had some chances to finish it off just like we did way back when,” Neely, now the Bruins president, said Thursday afternoon. “You certainly have some flashbacks.”
With the situation and circumstances so similar, how could you not?
Neely was in the absolute prime of his playing career when Game 1 of the Stanley Cup final arrived on May 15, 1990. The Bruins had home ice advantage and were favoured against a surprising Oilers team that was making one final kick at the can despite having traded away Wayne Gretzky.
They certainly looked like the stronger outfit in that opening game.
Boston carried much of the play and outshot Edmonton 52-31 — a missed chance by Glen Wesley still haunts Neely to do this day — but came away with a crushing 3-2 loss after little-used Petr Klima beat Andy Moog through the five-hole at 15:13 of triple overtime.
It remains the longest game ever played in the history of the Stanley Cup final and that Bruins team would never recover.
At least this one still has a chance.
Chicago’s Andrew Shaw played the unlikely hero on Wednesday night when a point shot hit teammate David Bolland and ricocheted in off his shin pad at 12:08 of triple overtime. The cameras soon found a frustrated-looking Neely seething in the press box.
“It’s not easy watching — believe me,” he said. “It’s a little easier if you’re sitting on the bench wearing equipment. You’re living and breathing with every shot on net.”
The parallels between games played more than 23 years apart are almost eerie. In addition to the late timing of the goals and the fact the Bruins lost both, Game 1 of each series was played on a Wednesday night and followed by a Game 2 on Saturday.
Back in 1990, the Bruins were still a little stunned when they took the ice again after that layoff and got blown out 7-2. They would drop the series in five games.
Neely is not a fan of picking through the past — “my rear-view mirror is broken,” he joked — and didn’t want to entertain the notion that things might have gone differently if Boston had found a way to win Game 1 in overtime.
“Maybe it would have, but it’s really hard to say,” Neely said. “They played really well. I remember that (Oilers goalie Bill) Ranford really stood on his head in that series.”
The man who ended Game 1 has no doubt that his goal doomed the Bruins.
“They were done,” Klima said. “They put everything into the first game. They got too tired, we scored, and it was over. I’m not saying this will happen with Chicago and Boston, but after the first game, they were done. It was over.
“They couldn’t come back. They couldn’t beat us.”
Klima had sat on the bench for roughly two straight hours before coach John Muckler tapped his shoulder and sent him over the boards to score the winning goal. One thing the Bruins didn’t have was a 40-goal scorer waiting in the wings.
“They were not that deep of a team,” Klima said.
The current Bruins have plenty of experience to go with their depth. They rallied from a 2-0 series deficit against Vancouver to win the Stanley Cup two years ago and erased a 4-1 lead in the third period of Game 7 against Toronto earlier this spring.
That’s the biggest difference Neely sees between the situation in 1990 and the one unfolding now.
“We’ve got two different teams, two different times, playing against different (opponents),” he said. “I just know that the experience of these guys going through what they did for the run in 2011 is experience we didn’t have.”
As a result, a different script is likely to be written from here.
But as everyone took some time to recover Thursday from the long Bruins-Blackhawks opener, many were also casting their eyes back to the Klima game. Craig Simpson, who is working this series as an analyst for Hockey Night in Canada, played for the 1990 Oilers and Neely is joined in Boston’s front office by former teammate Don Sweeney.
And how is this for one final crazy connection?
Bruins defenceman Andrew Ference, who had Johnny Oduya’s tying goal go in off his left skate in the third period on Wednesday night, grew up in Edmonton and had a unique tie to the Oilers as a kid.
“Petr Klima was my neighbour,” Ference said. “Actually, (he gave me) one of my first summer jobs. When he went home (to the Czech Republic) for summer vacation, I had to mow the lawn and my dad took care of his house.
“He was my dad’s tennis partner even for a while.”
Ference doesn’t recall ever being paid any money for that job. The real reward came when Klima would take him down to practice at Northlands Coliseum and introduce him to his famous Oilers teammates. Ference still has “like 100 sticks” hanging around his house from those years, including one that had belonged to Mark Messier.
He also quietly cherishes the memory of the goal Klima scored in the early hours of May 16, 1990 at the old Boston Garden — one that would ultimately help propel the Oilers to their fifth Stanley Cup title and put a big smile on an 11-year-old kid’s face.
“I remember that one well,” Ference said. “I don’t tell too many people in Boston that, but it was a memorable goal. Really memorable.”