Anatomy of an upset(s): Comparing ’91 North Stars to ’19 Blue Jackets

Dallas Stars center Mike Modano acknowledges the crowd after skating on to the ice in his Minnesota North Stars jersey after the Dallas Stars defeated the Minnesota Wild 4-3 in a shootout in their NHL hockey game in St. Paul, Minn. Saturday, April 10, 2010.(AP Photo/Andy King)

It’s a memory that still stings Jeremy Roenick.

Nearly 28 years to the day his Presidents’ Trophy-winning Chicago Blackhawks lost the final game of their first-round Stanley Cup playoffs series to the Minnesota North Stars, the wound remains fresh for the 49-year-old, who despite appearing in over 1,500 NHL games (regular season and post-season combined), never won a Stanley Cup.

“We had an amazing opportunity in 1991,” Roenick said in an interview with Sportsnet on Wednesday. “That team was so good. And I remember we were built for a playoff run. That’s the one thing we were so confident on, was when it came down to playing playoff hockey, which is in your face, physical, hitting—you know, the grind—we had the durability and the mentality. The mentality is everything in playoffs. Being able to fight through the pain. Fight through the injuries, fatigue—we had that. That was the most frustrating thing for me was how good we were mentally.”

And yet, the 106-point, NHL-leading Blackhawks found themselves bounced in six games by a North Stars team that had stumbled its way into the playoffs with a 27-39-14 record and just 68 points. The North Stars were a team Mike Modano told Sportsnet people referred to as one “everyone expected to get steamrolled.”

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We’re just two days removed from what both Modano and Roenick consider the biggest upset in NHL history—the 62-win, 2018-19 Tampa Bay Lightning being swept by the wild card Columbus Blue Jackets. With their help, and that of Hall-of-Famer Bob Gainey (who coached Minnesota past Chicago and on to the Cup Final that year against Pittsburgh), we’ll get a sense of what it’s like to live on either side of a monumental first-round upset.

Interestingly, all three men agree on a particular factor playing a large role in the eventual outcome.

“The Hawks had an abrasive, bullying culture,” said Gainey. “It leads to penalties.”

Modano remembers spending five-to-six days going through Chicago’s lineup—a group led by Steve Larmer’s 101 points and Roenick’s 94, but one that also featured abrasive players such as Chris Chelios and Stu Grimson—and just picking out where the North Stars could apply pressure to bait players into taking penalties.

“We just felt if we stayed disciplined, it might be a way for us to get into the series,” he said.

Minnesota executed the plan to perfection.

“They just tried to run us and tried to kill us. And every time they tried to hit us they threw something: extra slashes, crosschecks, elbows,” says Modano. “We took everything and anything they gave us, and once they saw it wasn’t bothering us, it frustrated them.”

Roenick recalls he could see what was happening, as could his teammates, but they refused to adjust.

“We just took so many freaking penalties,” he said of the 274 minutes the Hawks spent in the box during the series. “I can remember Dave Manson literally being in the box for what seemed like the entire series.”

By the end of it, Minnesota had tied an NHL record with 15 power play goals in a single series. They scored three goals with the man-advantage in a 4-3 overtime win in Game 1. And after losing Games 2 and 3, they tied the series with another two power play goals in a 3-1 win in Game 4 before scoring five more in a 6-0 win in Game 5.

“By the time the series arrived at the elimination game, the resilience of Chicago had been pierced,” said Gainey. “I think they self-imploded early in Game 6 (Minnesota took the lead 11:49 into the first period and added to it 1:09 later, en route to a 3-1 win).

“When you are the underdog, when your franchise/owner needs the financial bonus that comes from playing an extra playoff game, you are prepared/happy to play a seven-game series. The team who sees themselves advancing deep into the playoffs wants an efficient, short, decisive series, [and] when this plan begins to evaporate—maybe injuries happen—the favoured team has a very difficult task, in a small window of time, to remake their outlook.”

Roenick said the feeling of the series slipping away–as the Lightning no doubt experienced this past week–is one that’s almost impossible to deal with.

“The pressure is huge when you get down as a favourite, and then you feel so embarrassed facing elimination. It’s embarrassing,” he said. “Then your frustration comes in, then you start squeezing the stick and all that stuff and it just becomes one problem after another. You compound problems because you start forcing things. Pressure makes you force things, and once you start forcing things you start getting out of position. You start playing bad defence and then the puck is in the back of your net and it just f—–g steamrolls. It’s so frustrating as a player.”

On the other bench, belief starts to build up to the point of feeling nearly invincible. The ’91 North Stars, a team Modano says had little-to-no belief they could get past Chicago when the series began, hit their stride after tying things up in Game 4. After eliminating Chicago they proceeded to knock off a St. Louis Blues team that finished second overall in the NHL standings — 37 points ahead of them — in six games.

Minnesota then beat the reigning Stanley Cup champion Edmonton Oilers in five games in the Campbell Conference Final before falling in six in the Stanley Cup final to the Pittsburgh Penguins. But the North Stars would never have gone that far if the Hawks hadn’t underestimated them. It’s what Roenick believes occurred in the Tampa-Columbus series, too.

“It’s human nature,” he explains. “I think you go into a series like that thinking, ‘Don’t kill yourself first round because the second and third rounds are going to be even harder,’ and you know how hard it is to win a Stanley Cup. And then you’re up against a team that you handled pretty easily throughout the year (Tampa beat Columbus in all three regular-season meetings and out-scored them 17-3). You think a little bit further ahead than just the first round, and the next thing you know you put yourself in trouble and the team you’re against plays well. You can’t un-switch the switch. There’s a reason Minnesota went all the way to the Final that year: They played a game that was very playoff-savvy and we didn’t.”

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Neither did the Lightning. The team that had finessed its way through a near-perfect season came undone in the worst way against the Blue Jackets. And now Tampa Bay faces what Roenick believes is an even tougher reality than the one his Hawks faced back in ’91.

“It’s a long trek back,” he says. “You just have to forget about it. You have to throw it out in pro sports, especially because the parity is so strong and anything is possible in the NHL. They had a great year, they still have a great team. You can’t take away 62 wins, but it’s a long, long grind to get back, and it won’t be the same team.

“What [Lightning coach Jon] Cooper said is right: they put a big asterisk on that team that had the talent to have a historic season and a Cup win.”

As for Columbus, Modano sees a team with a chance to do what his North Stars fell just short of accomplishing three decades ago.

“You get through this and have a little bit of rest and some confidence,” he said. “They have a lot of what you need to move on. They have some nastiness, they have some skill, good goalie, so they have a little mix of everything. They barely made it into the playoffs, but the parity from one to eight now don’t mean anything these days.”

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