Greetings, Ranter Nation. Russo has graciously allowed me to make a guest appearance on the blog to recall the 1991 first-round playoff series between the North Stars and Chicago, when the Stars topped the Blackhawks in a monumental upset. Given this season’s scenario—the Blackhawks coming in as heavy favorites after winning the President’s Trophy, and the Wild wobbling in as the eighth seed—I immediately thought back to the ’91 series, when the Blackhawks also won the President’s Trophy and the North Stars had a losing record (27-39-14).
That series opened in the old Chicago Stadium, a complete dump that still felt like the most fabulous place on the planet. Wayne Messmer sang the national anthem in a voice that gave you the chills, and the crowd sang along even then, while waving flags and making noise any way it could. The arena had what was billed as the largest pipe organ in the world, lending a real old-time hockey feel to the proceedings. And the goal horn absolutely blew you out of your seat. When the crowd really got going, all that energy shook the press box, which was on the end of the rink.
They got going plenty in that series. Chicago was coached by the detestable Mike Keenan, and the Blackhawks—talented as they were—had a real thuggish streak. Guys like Chris Chelios, Dave Manson and Mike Peluso were seriously nasty. The North Stars countered with the placid, canny coach Bob Gainey, who looked at that lineup and crafted a brilliant strategy. He told his own toughs—Shane Churla, Basil McRae, Mark Tinordi—to swallow their intense dislike for their Norris Division nemesis and avoid penalties, knowing the Blackhawks probably would be unable to do the same.
They set the tone by beating Chicago 4-3 in overtime in Game 1, getting the better of Vezina Trophy-winning goaltender Ed Belfour. The North Stars got 11 power plays and scored on three--including the winner. Belfour even got an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty for arguing. Keenan and his players were furious, showing the short tempers that Gainey knew he could use to his advantage.
The North Stars were thumped 5-2 in Game 2, shifting the series to Met Center (moment of silence, please). They lost the next game 6-5; Gainey openly criticized the officiating, saying the winning goal should have been disallowed, and the league’s supervisor of officials later said he was right. Game 4 started with a shoving match during warmups and degenerated from there, with the North Stars winning 3-1 in a game marred by 139 penalty minutes.
So they went back to Chicago with the series tied 2-2—and sent Keenan into an absolute fit in Game 5.
The North Stars won 6-0 with five power-play goals on 12 chances, inciting the Chicago crowd to throw wadded-up cups on the ice as that booming pipe organ played “Send in the Clowns.’’ Chelios was particularly dirty in that game, attacking Brian Bellows at center ice, gouging at his eye and scratching his cornea. For that, the NHL fined him the princely sum of … $100! The next day, Keenan stood at a podium and insisted the officials were conspiring against his team. (If nothing else, this series offers evidence of how much the NHL has changed. Imagine Gary Bettman dealing with eye-gouging, fights in warmups and multiple coaches savaging his officials on the record, all in a single first-round series. His head would explode.)
So they came back to Met Center for Game 6. That marked the first time all season the North Stars sold out a game in advance; that was the season in which some early games drew only a few thousand people. A 3-1 victory in front of a singing, dancing, beach-ball-tossing crowd marked the first time in 20 years that the NHL’s top team had been knocked out of the playoffs in the first round. And Keenan had grown so desperate that he asked the officials to measure goalie Jon Casey’s stick. That got him nothing but another penalty, for delay of game.
Of course, everyone reading this blog knows the rest of the story: the North Stars went on to beat St. Louis and Edmonton before the joyride ended with a loss to Pittsburgh and Mario Lemieux in the Stanley Cup Finals.
So what do all of you remember most about the North Stars-Blackhawks series?
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