I want to talk about Pittsburgh Penguins hockey but there’s just not that much to talk about with the Lockout in full force. So I figured I’d put together the Top 10 Penguins Moments since the beginning of my lifetime. Just as a preface I want to point out that I used a whole playoff run or a complete regular season as a singular moment, along with other defining singular moments to compile the list. Hopefully the list will spark some discussion, whether I missed something or I placed them in the wrong order, let me know in the comments section what you would have picked, or what order you would have put them in. Hopefully I spark some fond memories. Okay without further adieu…
10. 1995-1996 Season and Playoff Run
Mario Lemieux returned after missing a season and half while recovering from back surgery and radiation treatment for Hodgkin’s Lymphoma for the 1995-1996 season. It was a great feeling as a fan to have the superstar center back and hopes were sky high, especially since a young Jaromir Jagr was becoming a superstar in his own right. Add Ron Francis as the second line center and Penguins had 3 players with over 100 points. Lemieux lead the way with 161 points, while Jagr wasn’t far behind with 149 and Ron Francis had 119. Petr Nedved was fourth in scoring with a measly 99 points. The Penguins won 49 games and finished the season with 102 points. The Penguins finished 1st in the Northeast division and as a 2 seed in the East ran through the Capitals and Rangers in 6 and 5 games respectively before they ran into the defensive oriented Florida Panthers in the Eastern Conference Finals. The Penguins were heavily favored but the Panthers held their ground forcing a game 7 in Pittsburgh. The score was tied 1-1 after Nedved scored to tie it early in the 3rd period but the game was decided on a bizarre 60 foot slap shot beat Barrasso eliminating the Penguins from the Playoffs in a heartbreaker. It was Jagr’s best season of his career and one of the last runs Mario Lemieux had before he retired (for the first time) in 1997.
9. 2008 Stanley Cup Final
The Penguins advanced to the Stanley Cup Final in 2008 armed with their 3 centers Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Jordan Staal. The Penguins finished 2nd in the East and were able to sweep the Senators in the first round, one year after the Senators knocked the Penguins out in Sidney Crosby’s Playoff debut. The Penguins then went on to beat Jagr’s Ranger’s and hated rival Flyers, going 12-2 through the first three rounds en route to the Stanley Cup finals where they faced the more experienced Detroit Red Wings. The Penguins were slow out of the gate dropping both of the games to start the series in Detroit. On the back of Crosby’s two goals the Penguins cut the lead in the series to 2-1 making it a series. The Penguins then lost a close game in game 4 before an epic 3 OT game 5 that was tied in the last minute of regulation by Max Talbot and ended by a snipe in Triple OT by Petr Sykora to move the series back to Pittsburgh for game 6. The Penguins would lose game 6 at home after a last ditch effort by hired gun Marian Hossa at the Buzzer. The loss was tough to stomach but it did cement the Penguins as an elite team in the NHL and paved the way for a rematch the very next year.
8. 1993 President’s Trophy
The Penguins were fresh off of winning back to back Stanley Cup Championships when they entered the 1992-93 season where they put together their best regular season yet. The Penguins were an offensive juggernaut with four 100 point scorers in the form of Mario Lemieux, Kevin Stevens, Rick Tocchet, and Ron Francis with 160, 111, 109 and 100 points respectively with a improving young Jaromir Jagr scoring 94 points.
Mario Lemieux started the season on fire with at least one goal in his first 12 games and was on pace to break Gretzky’s record of 92 goals in one season but half way through the season he was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma and had to take an undetermined leave of absence from the game while undergoing radiation treatment. Lemieux sat out two months before returning to the ice, Lemieux had a big enough lead in the Art Ross Trophy race to stay in contention until he returned but Pat LaFontaine had passed up Lemieux by 12 points. On the last day of his radiation treatment Mario Lemieux flew to Philadephia to play in a game against the Flyers (where the Flyers fans gave him a standing ovation) where he notched a goal and an assist in a 5-4 loss. The penguins would close out the season with an awe-inspiring (intact) NHL record 17 game win streak to end the season during which Lemieux was able to overtake LaFontaine and win the scoring race remarkably. It was the only time the penguins ever won the President’s Trophy for best regular season team with 56 wins and an ungodly 119 points. The Penguins were overwhelming favorites to win the Stanley cup but they fell in game 7 to the Islanders in the quarter finals on an overtime shot by David Volek. It truly was a David vs. Goliath moment destroying the Penguins hopes for back to back to back championships. Although they didn’t win it all, the 1992-93 Penguins are widely considered the best Penguins team to ever take the ice.
7. 1988-89 Pittsburgh Penguins Regular Season/ Playoff Run
The 1988-1989 Penguins were the first Penguins team to make the Playoffs with their young superstar center Mario Lemieux. Lemieux was arguably at his best before back and cancer related problems that would limit him later in his career. Without going into the season and playoff run too much let me just give you Mario’s stat line in 76 games he scored 85 goals, notched 114 assists for 199 points while also accumulating 100 PIM. One highlight of the season was a game in which Mario scored 5 goals 5 different ways (even strength, power play, short handed, penalty shot, and empty net). It was the best season ever by someone not named Gretzky and sparked the debate of who was better Lemieux or Gretzky. My answer will always be an unwavering “Mario without question”. The Penguins were eliminated in 7 games in the divisional finals by the Flyers after they swept the Rangers in the opening round but more important than the individual accomplishments, this season showed what the Penguins were capable of with their young phenom and foreshadowed the seasons to come.
6. Acquiring Ron Francis, Ulf Samuelsson and Greg Jennings from Hartford in 1991
In a huge blockbuster trade at the trading deadline in 1991 Penguins GM Craig Patrick pulled off a trade with the Hartford Whalers trading leading scorer John Cullen, Zarley Zalapski and Jeff Parker for Ron Francis, Ulf Samuelsson, and Greg Jennings. It was a risk for both sides, John Cullen was leading the Penguins while Mario Lemieux was hampered by injury but Patrick knew he needed an elite second line center and a rugged defenseman. The trade was a cornerstone in the Penguins early 90′s championships especially Francis and Samuelsson who were instrumental in making the Penguins a power house for the next decade. Ron Francis put up huge numbers in his time with the Penguins eclipsing the 90 pt marker on 4 occasions and the the 100 pt marker twice before eventually becoming captain when Mario stepped aside and retired. In time while Lemieux was out with back problems or cancer related absences Francis, along with Jagr, kept the Penguins afloat.
5. Winning the Lottery for No. 1 Overall Pick in the 2005 Draft
I still recall vividly where I was when I heard the Penguins won the lottery for the No. 1 overall draft pick in 2005 (the year after the last lockout). I was in a hotel room somewhere in North Carolina on my way to Myrtle Beach for vacation when my older cousin, my closest friend in watching the early cup runs, called me to tell me “WE GOT SIDNEY CROSBY!!!!” The Penguins were in a free fall and had traded off all their assets after a 2000-2001 run to the Eastern Conference Finals including Alexi Kovalev, Jaromir Jagr, Martin Straka, etc. The previous year the Penguins missed out on the number 1 pick to get the consensus no. 1 Alexander Ovechkin and had to settle for (thankfully, now) Evgeni Malkin but no one was sure when Malkin would be able to escape his contract with the KHL after the lockout. The Penguins were verging on bankruptcy at the time before eventually going bankrupt but the way that ping pong ball bounced saved the Penguins franchise allowing them to select the anointed Sidney Crosby. Sidney Crosby represented a new generation of the Penguins making Pittsburgh a hockey town again overnight.
4. 1992 Stanley Cup Championship
The penguins lost their beloved coach, “Badger” Bob Johnson, after the 1990-91 season to cancer and there was a cloud of uncertainty around the Penguins as they entered the 1991-92 season. Scotty Bowman came into coachthe Penguins, from his front office position, and they were off to a great start in their first 38 games before they hit a mid season slump where they went 5-15-4 in their next 24 games and it looked like all the hockey in the past year had caught up with them. The Penguins were forced to trade hall of fame defenseman Paul Coffey because of his impending free agency and it looked like the Penguins were doomed and giving up but GM Craig Patrick had other ideas. One year after the Ron Francis trade, Patrick was at it again and was able to acquire more grit by trading fan favorite Mark “The Wrecking Ball” Recchi to the Flyers for Rick Tocchet, Kjell Samuelson and back up goalie Ken Wregget. The trade boosted the Penguins to finish out the regular season with a 12-5-1 record, good enough for 3rd place in the Patrick Division allowing them to make the Playoffs for the second straight year.
The Penguins fell quickly down 3-1 in the first round of the playoffs to the Washington Capitals before fighting back to win in 7 games. After the first round victory the Penguins had all the momentum in the world as they moved on to face the Patrick Division Champion New York Rangers. The Penguins surprised the Rangers in game 1 winning 4-2 before the world stopped in game 2 when Ranger Adam Graves two hand slashed Mario Lemieux across the wrist and he crumbled to the ice. Lemieux suffered a broken wrist and was ruled out of the series. Ron Francis stepped into the first line center role and took over the series while Lemieux was out. The Penguins rallied around Francis to knock off the favored rangers in 6 games. The Penguins went on to play the Bruins in the Eastern Conference Finals for the second year in a row, and after winning the first game in overtime Mario Lemieux returned in game 2. The Penguins wouldn’t lose another game sweeping the Bruins then sweeping the Blackhawks in the Stanley Cup Finals. Game 1 of the Finals against the Blackhawks remains the best hockey game ever played in my opinion. It culminated back to back Stanley Cups, cementing the Penguins in history and laid the way for them to be the team to beat for the next decade.
3. 2009 Stanley Cup Championship
One year after the Penguins fell one game short of their ultimate goal in 2008 the 2009 Penguins and Sidney Crosby were back to prove they were the best team in the league. The Penguins got off to a rocky start and played .500 hockey well past the half way point of the season and were sitting outside a playoff spot, 10th in the Eastern Conference, on February 15th. GM Ray Shero decided a coaching change needed to be made firing Coach Michael Therrien, the coach that had lead them to the Stanley Cup Final the year before in favor of AHL affiliate Wilkes-Barre Scranton Penguins Coach Dan Bylsma. Shero also mixed things up in the trade market trading offensive defenseman Ryan Whitney for gritty left wing Chris Kunitz and Eric Tangradi and acquired veteran Bill Guerin from the New York Islanders. Under Bylsma the team finished the regular season 18-3-4, which was good enough for 4th seed in the Eastern Conference.
The Penguins started the playoffs on fire as they had the year before defeating the Flyers 4 games to 1 before moving on to play the President’s Trophy winning Washington Capitals. The series pitted the two biggest superstars in the league against each other in the form of Sidney Crosby vs. Alex Ovechkin. The series lived up to its billing. In the first game both players scored a hat trick with the Capitals coming out on top. The Penguins lost the first two games of the series falling 0-2 going home but they were able to even the series in both games at home. Each team held home ice and forced game 7 back in Washington where the Penguins were able to get out an early lead and run away with the series. Crosby scored 13 points in the series almost single handedly willing the Penguins to the win. With the momentum from the Washington series and on the back of Evgeni Malkin the penguins swept the Carolina Hurricanes before moving on to play the Detroit Red Wings in the Stanley Cup Final for the second year in a row. The Penguins once again fell down 0-2 in two almost deja vu type games from the year before. This time the Penguins were able to hold serve on home ice winning the next two games before going back to Detroit tied at 2 games apiece. In the ever important game 5 the Red Wings blew the Penguins out 5-0 sending the Penguins reeling back home to try and finish them out in 6 games as they had the previous year. But this time it was different and the Penguins squeaked out a 2-1 victory on a huge performance by Staal’s 3rd line. It came down to game 7 in Detroit, where the Penguins had not won yet, much like the Washington series. Crosby was hurt midway through the game but Max Talbot stepped up on the biggest stage notching two goals giving the Penguins a 2-0 lead before the Red Wings cut it to 1 with a goal from Brad Stuart but the Penguins got the last laugh with a diving stop by Marc-Andre Fluery on Hall of Famer Nick Lidstrom as time expired. The 2009 championship was their first since 1992 and their first without their savior Mario Lemieux proving the Penguins and their young core were for real and solidifing their place as the elite team in the league.
2. 1991 Stanley Cup Championship
The Penguins entered the 1990-91 season coming off a disappointing season without making the playoffs in the 1989-90 season but expectations were plenty high with Mario Lemieux at the helm. GM Craig Patrick, who finished the previous season coaching the club after a firing, hired “Badger” Bob Johnson to coach the Pittsburgh Penguins and named Scotty Bowman to the front office. The Penguins also picked up veteran leader and four time Stanley cup champion Bryan Trottier to help with leadership. Mario Lemieux missed the first half of the season recovering from a back injury the previous season leaving the Penguins to be lead by scorer John Cullen. They started slow but picked up steam with Cullen leading the way along with a breakout season from Mark Recchi, a 27 goal rookie campaign from youngster Jaromir Jagr, and Paul Coffey anchoring the defense with 93 points. Lemieux returned and they acquired defenseman Larry Murphy from the Minnesota North Stars and backup goalie Scott Young from the Hartford Whalers. Craig Patrick wasn’t done with Whalers when he pulled off the blockbuster deal to acquire Ron Francis, Ulf Samuelsson and Greg Jennings for their leading scorer John Cullen and Zarley Zalapski. The deal helped the Penguins to their first ever Division championship.
The Penguins lost the first game in the opening playoff series against the Devils, and they would go on to lose the first game of each playoff series of the 1991 playoff. After tying the series at 2, The Penguins fell in game 5 in the Civic arena going down 3 games to 2 before they rallied in game 6 in New Jersey before shutting out the Devils in game 7 to move on to the play the Washington Capitals in the second round. After losing the first game the Penguins would beat the capitals the next 4 to move on to the Wales Conference Finals to face the Boston Bruins. The Bruins would take the first two games at home before Kevin Stevens a native of Boston made a guarantee that the Penguins would win the series and they did just that, winning the next four games to advance to their first ever Stanley Cup Final. The Penguins played the Minnesota North Stars who were on a surprising run of their own after barley squeaking into the playoffs after finishing the season under .500. The North Stars were on fire in the playoffs though knocking off perennial power Edmonton along with the President’s Trophy winner Chicago Black Hawks. The North Stars rode their hot streak into the Civic Arena and took game one from the Penguins. The Penguins tied it up after game two but lost game three as Mario Lemieux sat out with back spasms. When Mario returned the Penguins for game 4 they won three straight including an 8-0 drubbing in game 6 to close out the series. The first Stanley Cup is always the most important, it put Pittsburgh on the map and showed the world the hockey town it was capable of being. Mario won his first of two Conn Smyth Trophies proving he was the best player in the game.
1. Selecting Mario Lemieux No. 1 Overall in 1984
If you scan this article you’ll find one name over and over and that’s Mario Lemieux. In my opinion he is greatest player to ever play game and even if you don’t agree that he’s the best ever, everyone would have to admit he’s in the top 2 that are far separated from the rest. 66 is the only number you can say in the same breath as 99. To try to write Mario’s importance to the Penguins and the city of Pittsburgh would take far more time, and paper than I have for this article but let me say this: Mario Lemieux saved the Pittsburgh Penguins not once but twice. Without him the Penguins would never have stayed in Pittsburgh through the 80’s yet 90’s. The Penguins had declared bankruptcy in 1975 and before him the civic area was perpetually half filled but then everything changed. He took a team that was the definition of mediocrity and made them a power house. His talent was immeasurable and his highlight reel is unimaginably long. The beauty and grace in which he played the game is an art form. If he finished his career and moved back to Quebec he’d still be number 1 on this list but he didn’t, he couldn’t. Pittsburgh crawled into his heart and when Pittsburgh crawled into his heart, he crawled into every Pittsburghers heart. Of all the great athletes who have ever played a sport in Pittsburgh: Roberto Clemente, Willie Stargell, Jack Lambert, Joe Greene, Terry Bradshaw, Bill Mazeroski, etc. etc. who are all great, Mario Lemieux stands tall. After he had saved them as a player he bought the floundering Penguins and made sure they stayed where they belonged. Aside from sports he’s a staple in the community of Pittsburgh, he donates money to cancer research being a cancer survivor himself, and he is proud to represent the city of Pittsburgh. Mario Lemieux is a man that every child in Pittsburgh was lucky to look up too as they grew up. I truly feel sorry for all hockey fans who weren’t lucky enough to see him play. Mario Lemieux is Pittsburgh. That day on June 9th, 1984 the city of Pittsburgh gained a son that’s made all the years of Pittsburgh Penguin hockey exist since.