The Pittsburgh Penguins and the New York Islanders have had a long and storied rivalry in their NHL existence. The rivalry began in earnest during the 1975 Stanley Cup playoffs. It was this series that saw the Penguins leap out to a 3-0 series lead, only be listed as only one of three teams that lost a series after leading 3-0. The Islanders stormed back to win the series.
Then the Pens and Isles met during the height of the Isles’ dynasty. The Penguins gave the Islanders fits in 1982, posing the only serious threat to their Cup run during the 1980-83 streak. The Pens extended the Islanders to Game 5 of the then best-of-5 playoff series before bowing out. The Islanders were never really challenged the rest of the way, winning their third of four straight Stanley Cups.
Fast forward now to 1993. The Penguins had skyrocketed to the top of the NHL mountain, two time Stanley Cup winners and winner of the President Trophy as the NHL’s best regular season team. The Islanders had fallen on hard times, and were returning to the playoffs for the first time in a few seasons, missing in 1991 and 1992.
Both teams dispatched their first round opponents, the Pens defeating the New Jersey Devils 4-1 and the Islanders upending the Washington Capitals 4-2. It was in this particular series that Dale Hunter recorded his name in NHL infamy after taking a cheap shot at Isles’ star Pierre Turgeon. Hunter of course, claimed he didn’t know a goal had been scored, a dubious statement since at the time of the hit, the Nassau Coliseum crowd was roaring, the lights were flashing, Turgeon was celebrating, and the Caps goalie was picking the puck out of his net.
On paper, the Penguins and Islanders were a mismatch. The Penguins had rolled over the league in the 1992-93 season. They were riding the confidence of back to back championships. Mario Lemieux had won the scoring race with 160 points in only 60 games. Tom Barrasso was among the league’s elite goaltenders. There were some sports analysts that claimed the four rounds of the playoffs were a formality for the Pens. It seemed as though nothing would stop the mighty Pens.
The Islanders had other ideas. Although finishing 32 points behind the Pens in the series, the New York team from Long Island relied upon timely goaltending from Glenn Healy and a balanced scoring attack. However, drawing the Pens was a monumental task, as they were missing their leading scorer in Turgeon, who was out indefinitely with a separated shoulder.
By the time the dust settled, the Islanders had proven to be undaunted by the Penguins. The teams split the first four games. In Game 5, the Penguins ran away with the win, scoring three times in the first two minutes en route to a 6-3 win. They led the series 3-2, and had the chance in Game 6 to finally put away the pesky Isles.
It didn’t happen.
The Penguins lost the game 7-5, but the real story was the play of rookie defender Darius Kasparaitis. The Lithuanian-born defenseman simply rocked Lemieux at every opportunity, unafraid of Super Mario. He also filled in Jaromir Jagr, sending the right winger to the ice. The Islanders got their boost from his energetic play, and pulled even in the series, setting the tone for a Game 7…a game that the Penguins were never supposed to play.
The Penguins put together their best game of the series, outshooting the Islanders 45-20 in the game. But they never anticipated that Glenn Healy would be equal to the task. The Penguins came at the Islanders in waves, especially in the first period, when they outshot the New York squad 20-7.
Star winger Kevin Stevens suffered a devastating facial injury and had to be carried off on a stretcher. Lemieux hit the post on a breakaway. An ominous feeling was settling over the Civic Arena in Pittsburgh.
The Penguins scored first on a goal by Ulf Samuelsson. But Barrasso inexplicably collapsed when the Penguins needed him the most, allowing two questionable goals as the Islanders rattled off three straight. Islander forward unleashed a shot from the blueline that Barrasso missed, giving New York a 3-1 lead in the third period. It was a goal that gave the Civic Arena a tomb-like silence.
The Penguins rallied to tie the game in the last minute. But continuing his cold streak, Barrasso went down too early on a David Volek shot. The puck sailed over the goalie’s shoulder, ending the Penguins’ championship streak.
Since that day…May 14, 1993…the Penguins and Islanders haven’t had a normal rivalry. The bad blood seemed to boil over in every season since then, culminating in a very vicious game in February 2011. Although the games haven’t been quite as intense since then, the strange rivalry can trace its roots to that Patrick Division Finals in the playoffs of 1993.