The Ray Bourque-led Bruins teams that just missed greatness

Bruins legend Ray Bourque talks with media following the Alumni Game about what it was like playing for the Boston Bruins.

Foxborough, MA. – In the post-colour T.V. era, there have been two golden ages of Black and Gold hockey.

The first occurred in the early 1970s, when Bobby Orr revolutionized the game and helped deliver two Stanley Cups to the Boston Bruins, who had been largely irrelevant for the three preceding decades. After championships in 1970 and ’72, the B’s endured another extended title drought, one that ended when a very different kind of defenceman—a bearded behemoth named Zdeno Chara—raised the Cup in 2011. Two years later, Boston was back in the final and lost a tight six-game series to the powerhouse Chicago Blackhawks.

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Between those triumphs, a third blueliner—the guy who got the biggest cheer at Thursday’s NHL Winter Classic Alumni Game—was the face of a club that never went all the way, but carved out a special spot in the hearts of fans who were either too young to appreciate Orr’s majesty or never saw him altogether.

The Ray Bourque-led Bruins of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s deserve a pretty prominent spot in any conversation about the best clubs to never throw a parade. In four of five playoffs from 1988 to 1992, Boston’s year ended at the hands of the eventual Cup winners, whether that was in the final to the dynastic Oilers (‘88 and ‘90) or in conference final setbacks to the Pittsburgh Penguins (‘91 and ‘92).

To wit: The only teams capable of knocking the B’s out of the post-season dance were outrageously talented squads captained by Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier and Mario Lemieux. That’s hardly a reason to hang your helmet in shame.

Bourque acknowledged the B’s were overmatched by the Gretzky-era Oilers, but lamented the loss to Edmonton in 1990, noting Boston dropped a triple-overtime affair at home in Game 1 of that series and never quite recovered.

“I thought we matched up way better,” he said of that Bruins club. “I thought we were deeper. I thought we had enough to get it done.”

Bourque also couldn’t help but note the Penguins clubs Boston lost to defeated Minnesota North Star and Blackhawk teams that offered nowhere near the same level of competition the B’s faced in their finals trips.

“No disrespect to any of those teams, but I wouldn’t mind that matchup instead of the Oilers,” he said.

If there was a silver lining during those Cupless years, though, it was Boston’s mastery over the Montreal Canadiens. In 1987, the Habs won their 18th consecutive post-season series versus the B’s as part of a mind-boggling stretch that dated back to the late 1940s. Then, in ‘88, Bourque and his teammates did something the likes of Johnny Bucyk, Phil Esposito and even Orr himself couldn’t—beat the damn Canadiens.

For Bourque, a Montreal native who still returned home in the off-season, being part of the team that finally ended the Habs’ chokehold on the rivalry was pretty sweet.

“For me it was such a nice summer, the summer of ’88,” he said.

Montreal struck back the next year en route to an appearance in the final, but Boston went on to completely flip the rivalry by winning the next four playoff series between the teams in ‘90, ‘91, ‘92 and ‘94. The Bruins even salted the wound by winning the final post-season game in Montreal Forum history, a 3-2 triumph in Game 6 of a 1994 first-round series.

Joining Bourque on those teams—and on the alumni club that defeated Montreal’s old-timers 5-4 in a shootout late Thursday afternoon—were defenceman Don Sweeney and power forward Cam Neely. The latter has been Bruins president since 2010, while the former joined the front office in 2006, working in a variety of jobs before assuming the GM duties last spring. That means both men played a prominent role in building the Boston club that went all the way four years ago.

“I think it makes complete sense,” Bourque said of the success Neely and Sweeney have had. “Both guys are character guys who did it the right way and worked hard. They both know what a Bruin should be all about. So when you have those two guys leading the way and putting the team together, I think you have a huge advantage.”

While Neely and Sweeney got their rings wearing suits, Bourque famously got his after becoming a member of the Colorado Avalanche at the end of his career. And while everyone found a version of happiness in the end, it’s easy to think they deserved a little more when they were all playing together.

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