Look what the cat has dragged on-stage for the NHL's big show: the Minnesota North Stars and the Pittsburgh Penguins, two franchises that have generated more red ink than red lights in their 24-year histories. Think of it: Five teams that scored at least 100 points during the regular season, plus the defending champion Edmonton Oilers, are out, and the 88-point Penguins and the 68-point North Stars are in.
But don't think of the Stanley Cup finals in those terms. Never mind that Minnesota had fewer regular-season points than any other finalist since the NHL's first expansion, in 1967-68. Or that it could become the first team in North America with a losing record (27-39-14) to win a championship in any major sport since the Toronto Maple Leafs won the Cup in '49. And do not assume that the Penguins played over their heads in beating the Boston Bruins, '88 and '90 Stanley Cup finalists, in six games for the Wales Conference title. Nor should you ascribe the North Stars' success to mere good fortune. Minnesota had a lot more than that going for it to dispatch the regular-season champion Chicago Blackhawks; the St. Louis Blues, the No. 2 team in the league; and an Edmonton team trying for its sixth Cup in eight years. All three series ended in less than seven games.
So do not prejudge this final as being between two teams about to decide nothing more than who can stay luckier longer. And please—puhleeeze—spare us that tedious refrain about the meaninglessness of hockey's regular season. The evidence remains strong that the best teams in the regular season usually succeed in the playoffs. In 17 of the 23 postseasons since 1968, the team that finished first in the regular season reached the finals. In 20 of those 23 years, either the No. 1 or No. 2 team did.
Sure, there have been a few flukes, but 1991 isn't one of them. This isn't like '82, when the 77-point Vancouver Canucks reached the Stanley Cup finals without facing an opponent with a winning record before getting swept by the New York Islanders. Nor is this like '86, when a 119-point Edmonton juggernaut was stunned by the 89-point Calgary Flames, who proceeded to lose to the 87-point Montreal Canadiens in the finals. The NHL had no dominating teams this season. That five clubs accumulated 100 or more points indicates that the league had a larger-than-normal group of good teams. All of them, though, had significant flaws.
Minnesota and Pittsburgh simply had more good players and more ways to win than the teams they defeated. In the case of the North Stars, this conclusion may sound particularly absurd, but it's true. The Blackhawks and Blues were both one-line teams, a species that becomes extinct come playoff time, when the importance of strategy increases and the checking tightens. Chicago had no reliable scorers other than Jeremy Roenick and Steve Larmer. St. Louis had none aside from Brett Hull and Adam Oates. And the same factor that doomed the Oilers to regular-season mediocrity—a banged-up Mark Messier—caught up with them. Edmonton lost to Minnesota because it wasn't deep enough offensively to make up for the production it normally would have gotten from Messier.
The North Stars have smart role players like Stew Gavin and Gaetan Duchesne to frustrate an opponent's top scorers. Minnesota also has two scoring lines, each anchored by a fine playmaking center, Neal Broten or Dave Gagner. Going into Wednesday night's Cup-round opener against the Penguins, four of the North Stars—Broten, Gagner, Brian Bellows and Brian Propp—had an average of more than a point a game in the postseason. Minnesota had gotten power-play goals from 10 different players and had clicked through three rounds at an impressive 26.9% efficiency with the man advantage. The North Stars have no stars, but they have balance.
Minnesota was in turmoil at the start of the season, following a threatened shift of the North Stars to San Jose, the sale of the franchise last spring and a coaching change. And the team hardly got a lift from playing before 5,000 fans in a 15,039-seat arena, as it did for most of its regular-season home games. However, these were essentially the same Stars who had taken Chicago to seven games in the first round last year, so it was hard to understand how they could be so abysmal. Once the North Stars adjusted to their new coach, Bob Gainey, who's as icy as his predecessor, Pierre Page, was fiery, they steadily improved.
During the two-month stretch from Jan. 17 to March 17, Minnesota went 14-6-6, and it has lost only two of its last 23 games at home, including the playoffs. Now shots launched by players who couldn't have hit any of the empty Met Center seats earlier in the season are zipping under crossbars with such accuracy that even Grant Fuhr, the world's greatest goalie, couldn't reach them in the Edmonton series. It's also uncanny how often in the playoffs Minnesota has given up a potentially pivotal goal only to come back and score within a few shifts.
Two veterans picked up last summer by new North Star general manager Bobby Clarke—Propp and Bobby Smith—have played well and added a stabilizing presence. Jon Casey's goaltending has also been excellent. In short, Minnesota enjoyed favorable matchups in its three previous playoff series, so its accomplishments to date have been genuine, not flukes.
The North Stars entered the finals almost completely healthy, an unlikely occurrence after three rounds. Moreover, their young defense has remained poised far beyond its level of experience, but that's more a reflection of confidence and solid coaching than of beginner's luck. A combination of an excellent game plan and extraordinary concentration allowed Minnesota to control the neutral zone in the postseason. That's the key to shutting down a team with exceptional speed, like Pittsburgh. It's also one of the keys to shutting down Mario Lemieux.