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In NHL playoffs, belief can work wonders for underdogs

In 1991, the confident underdog Minnesota North Stars became the most unlikely Stanley Cup finalist in NHL history.

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Each year, as the NHL playoffs progress, something strange and wonderful starts to happen after a round or so: Teams that might have had some doubt about themselves begin to figure out what they can really do. It’s a process of growth and assertion, where the concerns that may have been instilled during the regular season give way to burgeoning confidence.

There may be no better examples of just how potent that developing belief can be than what was on view 25 years ago in the 1990-91 playoffs and what went down for both eventual conference champions. In the Campbell Conference, there was the Minnesota North Stars and their 27-39 regular season record (with 14 ties), which placed them fourth in the never-very-potent Norris Division. The North Stars excelled at setting up residency in the penalty box: Basil McCrae was the goon, back when every team had one or more, with 214 PIMs, but he was no match for Shane Churla and his 286, with Mark Tinordi no Sin Bin slouch himself at 189.

The charitable word would be that these North Stars were “bruising,” but then again, they had to be, given that their top offensive talent consisted of aging players like Brian Propp, Bobby Smith and Neal Broten, fringe All-Stars even when they were in their primes.

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The enigmatic Brian Bellows registered a solid 75 points, and David Gagner, who was better known as a skilled defensive forward, managed to hit the 40-goal mark. A 20-year-old Mike Modano numbered among the ranks and had a solid season, and there was a future Hall of Famer in Larry Murphy, but with the North Stars ostensibly going nowhere, the defenseman was shipped out of town. More on that in a moment.

Jon Casey, a goalie who had his own punchline about his five hole, was the primary ‘keeper. Even if you had watched the Vancouver Canucks’ improbable run to the Stanley Cup Final back in ’82, you’d have to be out of your mind to think these North Stars were going anywhere. The first round found them pitted against a stacked Chicago Blackhawks team, with Jeremy Roenick really getting going as one of the top forwards in the world, Eddie Belfour in net (with Dominik Hasek, of all people, as a back-up—and playoff reliever—at points), prime era Chris Chelios on D, and Mike Keenan overseeing things back when he was considered a franchise-changing coach.

And wouldn’t you know: The Stars' forwards started to snipe, Casey got hot, the Blackhawks felt the pressure, and the boys from the Land ‘o Lakes prevailed in six. Didn’t see that coming.

It’s fascinating how quickly playing with house money can morph into a sort of bad ass confidence, a swagger, which the North Stars had going in the next round against the St. Louis Blues.

Those Blues, like the Hawks, racked up over 100 points that season, the one in which Brett Hull notched his still-stunning 86 goals. As with Chicago, St. Louis lasted six games before bowing out. They'd been Starred!

We then come to one of the odder conference finals, with a team way below .500 facing a team, in the Edmonton Oilers, at exactly .500. Sub-mediocrity v. mediocrity.

That’s a little misleading: the Oilers were the defending Cup champs, and they had knocked off their Alberta rivals the Calgary Flames in an epic seven-game first round series, then handled Wayne Gretzky’s Kings in the division finals. Gretzky, in his post-Edmonton days, was always an Oilers killer—big surprise there, right?—so this victory was both an on-ice and moral victory for his former team.

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The Oilers were down that season, with Mark Messier missing significant time. Esa Tikkanen was their leading scorer, which ought to tell you something, but your standard Oilers winning crew was intact: Glenn Anderson, Charlie Huddy, Steve Smith, Kevin Lowe, Bill Ranford (with Grant Fuhr taking over for the playoffs). The Oil must have thought something akin to, “We're going back to back, boys! Who needs Gretz!”

But the North Stars took them out in five, making them the most unlikely team to reach the Cup final in NHL history, and a squad that anyone who ever qualifies for the postseason can point to and say, Hey, you never know, so let’s lay it all out there.

Their opponent was Mario Lemieux and his Pittsburgh Penguins, a team that had reasons for its own boatful of doubts. These were the pre-Cup Pens. Lemieux had won individual awards, but the knock on him was still that he wasn’t a winner where it counted. Plus, he played only 26 games that season, and 59 the year before due to his chronic back problems. The Pens had struggled to a 41-33-6 record, which might prompt you to remark something like what could one expect, they were without Super Mario, but let’s do some math.

With the in-season acquisition of Larry Murphy—neat, eh?—from those North Stars who believed they were going nowhere, the Penguins had six future Hall of Famers on their roster: Mario, Paul Coffey, Ron Francis, Bryan Trottier, Joe Mullen, and Murph (coach Bob Johnson would land in the Hall as well).

But that’s also misleading. Because that team additionally had an 18-year-old Jaromir Jagr, who was just starting to become a stud, and will be a first ballot guy. Plus Mark Recchi, when he was at his peak as an offensive force (113 points) and a likely Hall of Famer, and Tom Barrasso in goal, another performer whose enshrinement would surprise no one.

We’re talking basically nine HOF’ers, plus Kevin Stevens, one of the league’s top power forwards at the time and a point-plus per game player during his years in Pittsburgh.

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In the first round, the Pens drew the New Jersey Devils, a plucky team long on grit and short on dominant talent, and needed seven games to knock them out. But knock them out they did, and with that dispatching came waves of confidence.

The Washington Capitals were then swatted aside in five, and despite dropping the first two games to a solid Boston Bruins team with defenseman Ray Bourque at his apex, the Pens ran off four straight to land themselves in the Cup final against our upstart North Stars.

This was supposed to be Lemieux’s coronation party as Gretzky’s successor, so the doubt quotient was ratcheted up after the North Stars took the first game. If you weren’t a Penguins fan or a Mario guy, you wanted Minnesota to win, because, let’s face it, theirs was an awesome story. The North Stars won the opener, 5–4, in Pittsburgh and took a 2-1 series lead before finally reverting to pumpkinhood. The Penguins took the next three, annihilating them, 8–0, to clinch the Cup. Lemieux, who missed one contest on account of his lingering back injury, still produced 12 points in the series for a total of 44 in 23 games throughout the playoffs. An all-timer of an accomplishment. Your scepter, King.

Maybe better still was that this was one of the rare years where almost everyone came away with at least as much respect for the Cup loser as the winner. The Pens, of course, would repeat the next year, and they looked like they were bound to do a three-peat in '93, before that spring's New York Islanders team—which was very Minnesota North Stars-like—quashed all of that on unlikely hero David Volek's overtime goal in Game 7 of their second round series. 

You know how the playoffs are, though—and the Islanders wouldn’t win another series until this spring, beating a Florida Panthers team whose leading scorer was a 44-year-old JaromirJagr. Perhaps the Isles have lately discovered something in themselves, in terms of what they can do, much like those PIM-accumulating North Stars once did.