As both the Minnesota North Stars and Pittsburgh Penguins rolled into the 1991 Stanley Cup Final, it was called “the most improbable pair down in playoff history.” And that name had truly lived up to the billing on paper, as the team fans now call the Minnesota Wild came into the playoffs with only a record of 27-39-14 (68 points) and ended as the fourth seed in the Norris Division of the Clarence Campbell Conference. The North Stars were the last team to make it into the playoffs, finishing as the 16th overall seed in the NHL.
The team came into the series with the “why not us?” mindset, and fans of the North Stars and NHL had sufficient evidence to see that the team was “game” in the biggest series the league has to offer. After dispatching the Chicago Blackhawks (who finished with a league-high 106 points in the regular season) in only six games, the team kept up the magical run and took down the second leading team in points — the St. Louis Blues (105 Points) — in six games as well.
Now, after those two historic series wins, it could be easy to feel invincible and possibly look over the next opponent, but this team didn’t do that by a long shot, as they took down the Wayne Gretzky-less Edmonton Oilers in only five games in the conference final.
After this breathtaking run to get to the brink of the promised land, there was still one more challenger in the form of the Pittsburgh Penguins. And this wasn’t just any Penguins team, as they were led by the legendary Mario Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr, and came into the playoffs as the Patrick Division Champions and the third-place seed in the Prince of Wales Conference.
However, Pittsburgh’s road wasn’t as smooth as the North Stars’ had been, as they had gone a full seven games with a respectable New Jersey Devils team in the first round, and knocked off the Washington Capitals after six games in the second round. After that, they finished their Stanley Cup path with a victory over a great Boston Bruins team who came into the playoffs as the fifth overall seed (in a tiebreaker with Calgary) with 100 points of their own.
Something had to give, and Game 1 took place inside of the Pittsburgh Civic Arena in front of a packed house. The match began at a furious pace, as both teams had decent scoring chances in the first two minutes, with maybe the best coming from the North Stars’ Brian Glynn on the near post, only to be denied by Tom Barrasso.
Despite the heated start from the Minnesota offense, it was Pittsburgh who threw the first punch. The Penguins won the face-off in their offensive end and sent the puck back to the top of the key to Ulf Samuelsson, who then fired a low-driven shot past John Casey (whose vision was hampered by a screen) to make the game 1-0 in favor of the home team, and only 3:45 into the game.
The Stars then went on the penalty kill only 30 seconds later as Brian Propp was sent to the box for slashing. After an onslaught of shots from the home team, Minnesota weathered the storm and killed off the penalty. Looking back, this was a huge moment early on in this historic match, as going down 2-0 early in a game, especially in the Stanley Cup Final, was less than desired.
Minnesota equalized only seconds after the kill, as Chris Dahlquist received the puck in the neutral zone and took his space down the near side only to flick a pass in front of net to the trailing Neal Broten. Broten then absolutely fired one at Barrasso, taking the net off its hinges, while the puck found its way home. After further review, it was found that the puck deflected off a Pittsburgh defender, but goals still count all the same, right?
The fiery nature of the game continued a few minutes later as Pittsburgh’s Troy Loney was sent to the box for roughing. While watching this game (available online), the intensity and pure will from the players on the ice is really a sight to behold, even 29 years later.
Now with a man-advantage, the North Stars were unable to capitalize in the allotted two minutes, but did find the net only seconds later after the expiration, as Loney was unable to make it back to the play in time to join the defensive effort. The goal came from Ulf Dahlen who showed great presence of mind to keep up with the puck after multiple rebounds beforehand to give Minnesota the 2-1 advantage.
Before the goal, the North Stars had scored 66 total goals in the 91 playoff games, in which 31 came in the opening period. This team had a knack of getting off to a hot start, and it showed. However, give credit where it is due, as Barrasso played like a brick wall for most of the period when things could have gotten out of hand due to the swarming nature of Minnesota’s offense.
The rest of the first period didn’t change the 2-1 score, until the game shifted to the second frame and the Pens equalized nearly four minutes in. Pittsburgh, who was a man down, did a great job creating a counterattack off a long-ranged shot from Minnesota. That then created a one-on-one situation coming back the other way as Lemieux skated to his right and beat Casey for the close-ranged goal.
About two minutes after the goal, the North Stars had their backs up against the wall once again as Jim Johnson was sent to the box for slashing. But it’s those teams who can rise when they are down that end up in moments like the Stanley Cup Final, and the North Stars did just that.
While a man down, Marc Bureau found his way behind the defense and sent a ripper past Barrasso to once again quiet the Pittsburgh crowd and give his team the 3-2 advantage with just under 14 minutes to go in the second frame.
But the home team did not go down lightly as Minnesota was unable to fully kill the penalty they were still. Scott Young received the puck at the top of the key, after some textbook puck movement, sent a slap shot that deflected off Casey’s glove and into the back of the net, tying the game at 3-3.
As the game ran the rest of its course, Minnesota added two more goals from both Neal Broten (his second of the night) and Bobby Smith to put the game out of reach. Pittsburgh made it interesting with a goal from Joe Mullen to cut Minnesota’s lead to 5-4, but it wasn’t enough. The Minnesota North Stars — a team many thought wouldn’t have a chance of even making the Stanley Cup Final — held a 1-0 lead in the series.
Pittsburgh did end up having the last laugh in the series, as they finished off Minnesota in six games for their franchise’s first Stanley Cup.
However, at the end of the day, Minnesota fans can use games such as this one as an example of a team that’s already been counted out, but manages to silence the doubters, and make it all the way to the pinnacle of the playoffs. If this year’s Minnesota Wild team can finish off this season with the same fire and passion, then who knows? Maybe another Cinderella story can be told for the Land of 10,000 Lakes in the near future?