Between March 9th and April 10th, the ’92-’93 Penguins rolled off seventeen wins to set the NHL record for consecutive victories. Mario Lemieux had just undergone treatment for Hodgkin’s disease, missing a total of twenty-four games. On March 2nd, he tried to readjust in a 5-4 loss to the Philadelphia Flyers.
Scoring a goal and racking up an assist, Mario received a standing ovation from the Flyers crowd. The gesture was unprecedented, considering the animosity between the Pens and their in-state rival. He could have let the praise go to his head, but the Penguins captain had bigger issues with which to deal. Buffalo Sabres forward Pat LaFontaine possessed a comfortable twelve-point lead in the NHL scoring race, but even more important, the Montreal Canadiens had surpassed the Penguins as number one in the league by four points. There were only nineteen games left in the season. Mario felt confident that he would regain his former abilities, but he had a phenomenal team backing him up. Jaromir Jagr, Ron Francis, Joe Mullen, Larry Murphy, Ulf Samuelsson, Kevin Stephens, Rick Tocchet, and an outstanding goalie in Tom Barrasso.
On March 5th, the Penguins stumbled again against the New York Rangers, losing 3-1 at Madison Square Garden. Lemieux did not score a point in the game and only had a single shot. Barrasso stopped all but three shots for a save percentage of 0.900, but the Penguins were only able to find the back of net on one occasion. The loss had to be forgotten quickly as the team was set to welcome the Bruins at the Civic Arena four days later.
The streak began with a chippy win against the Bruins. This was thanks in large part to a two-goal performance by Joe Mullen and a solid game in net for Barrasso. Mario picked up an assist on six shots; he was still trying to find his stride after his long absence from the ice. His will to survive and thrive helped him persevere through the back surgeries that nearly ended his career multiple times. The same will helped him endure the aggressive radiation treatment which would help him defeat cancer. He would not give up. He would never give in.
The next game was two days later, at home against the Gretzky-led, ~.500 L.A. Kings. This game revealed the first glimmer of Mario’s true return. Lemieux was involved in every Penguin’s goal, scoring once in regulation and picking up three assists in a 4-3 victory. In overtime, Mario’s perfect pass set up Larry Murphy for the game-winning slap shot. Gretsky’s two-point effort (1G, 1A) could not compare with the four-point performance of the Penguin’s captain, although the first star honors went to Jagr for a two-goal night.
A snowstorm caused the next game to be delayed, as more than twenty inches fell on the Steel City. A March 13th date with the scrappy Islanders was pushed to the 14th and a game with Ottawa was sent to the end of the month. Another game decided by a single goal, the visiting Penguins escaped with a win thanks to a magnificent night in net by Tom Barrasso. Murphy, Francis, and Tocchet each picked up a goal, but Barrasso’s thirty-eight saves sealed the Penguin’s 3-2 victory.
On March 18th, Mario and the Penguins welcomed the slumping Capitals, who had followed a 7-game winning streak with a 2-5-1 stumble. Mario would rack up a hat-trick (plus one) and a pair of assists, contributing on six of his team’s seven goals. This alone should have been enough, but Barrasso’s back-up, Ken Wregget, struggled in net. Prior to being pulled, Wregget allowed four goals in the first period. Tom stopped the next twenty-six out of twenty-seven, securing the fourth victory in a row with a final score of 7-5.
Mario followed up his four-goal performance with another against a visiting Philadelphia on the 20th. His first allowed the Penguins to take the lead 1-0, the second increased it to 3-0, the third finished his hat-trick, and his fourth sent the Flyer’s goalie into a rage, and capped off the game at a final score of 9-3.
The very next night, the Penguins traveled to Ohio to challenge the Edmonton Oilers. The game would be played on neutral soil at the Richfield Coliseum, located in between Cleveland and Akron. Mario had a single point (his 50th goal of the season), while his teammates Mullen, Stevens, and Murphy picked up the rest of slack. Ken Wregget regained his composure after giving up four goals against the Capitals, stopping thirty out of thirty-four shots in a 6-4 win.
Two days later, Mario and Penguins blew the young Sharks franchise (10-62-2) out of the water in a 7-2 drubbing at the Civic Arena. Mario picked up two goals and three assists for another five-point performance and Barrasso stopped twenty-seven of twenty-nine. Although the Sharks team was young and inexperienced, the Penguins did not give an inch while securing their seventh victory in a row.
The Penguins brought a seven-game winning streak into the March 25th home game against the New Jersey Devils (36-32-6). Mario added a goal and three assists on goals by Jagr and Tocchet and a solid performance by Barrasso to secure the victory, 4-3.
With the win against New Jersey, the Penguins secured a playoff berth with nine games left in the season, recording their first 100-point season in franchise history. The Penguins brought this momentum to Boston (43-26-7) on the 27th, pickingup their 9th victory in a 5-3 effort. Barrasso back-stopped the victory with thirty-six saves, and Mario(2), Jaromir, Dave, and Rick all scored in the winning effort. The highlight of the night, however, was Ulf Samuellson’ altercation with Cam Neely, who got ejected in the aftermath. The two had a history dating back to the 1991 conference finals, where Samuelsson infamously ended Neely’s postseason with a brutal knee-to-knee hit. This hit would cause an injury that would ultimately shorten Cam Neely’s career.
One day later, the Penguins went on the road against Washington (38-30-7) and picked up their 10th win in a 4-1 blowout in front of a disappointed Capital Centre crowd.. Mario scored once and picked up two assists, but Barrasso’s magnificent game in net made the most difference. Mario’s three points catapulted him by Pat LaFontaine for the lead in the NHL scoring race by a single point. For Mario, the seemingly impossible had been accomplished, but the team’s journey was far from over.
Mario did relent simply because he secured the scoring lead. The Penguins returned home to play the (9-63-4) Ottawa Senators. Picking up a goal and assist, Mario’s points were still insufficient and he was forced to give the lead back to LaFontaine’s 4-points on the 31st. The most important number was the final score, however, as the Penguins picked up their 11th in a row with a 6-4 victory.
Pat LaFontaine was not allowed to keep his lead for long as the Penguins stormed to a 10-4 win against the Hartford Whalers (22-49-5). Scoring for the Pens, Mario picked up three points (2G,1A), Jeff Daniels added two goals, and Rick Tocchet had a hat-trick. Mario led the scoring race by two points as the Pengins had just secured their 12th win in a row.
After two games against losing teams, the Penguin’s winning streak began to face tougher and tougher tests to move forward. Visiting the Quebec Nordiques (44-25-10), Mario and the Penguins fought hard to secure a 5-3 victory for number thirteen . Barrasso was a big factor in the win, but his play in the first period raised concerns amongst his teammates. After falling behind 2-0, the Penguins surged back with two goals apiece by Mario and Dave Tippett, who had the short-handed game-winner in the 3rd period. Barrasso stopped all but one other shot in the remaining forty minutes, ending with thirty-three saves for the night. Mario retained the scoring lead with his three points, but Barrasso won the star of the night at Le Colisee.
The Penguins secured their fourteenth in a row at the Bryden Byrne Meadowlands Arena in East Rutherford, NJ. The New Jersey Devils (38-35-6) fought the hard fight but the Penguins were able to squeak out a win, 4-3. Mario added three points (1G,2A), while teammates Ron Francis (goal#2) tallied four (2G,2A), Rick Tocchet picked up three (0G,3A), and Jagr had two (1A,1A). In net, Barrasso stopped thirty out of thirty-two to keep his team’s streak alive.
The toughest win of the Penguin’s streak would come in a home game against the eventual Stanley Cup Champions in the form of the Montreal Canadiens (47-28-6). The game would be forced to overtime, tied 3-3 after regulation. Ulf Samuelsson’s game-winning goalkept the Penguin’s streak alive, but it was Rick Tocchet’s four points (3G,1A) which catapulted the Penguin’s to their 15th straight victory (First Goal, Second, Third). Patrick Roy (the year’s eventual Conn Smythe trophy winner) was in net against the Penguins. Mario’s two assists helped him maintain his lead over LaFontaine in the scoring race.
The Penguins would take their winning streak on the road against New York Rangers for the chance to break the record (which had been held by the NY Islanders at 15). Considering the Ranger’s record at the time (just under .500 at 34-35-11), the Penguins expected a tough game but the result was anything but close. The Penguin’s devastated the Rangers 10-4, thanks in large part to a five-goal night by Mario (Goals: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5). With two games remaining in the season, Mario’s five points helped him secure a sizable lead over LaFontaine in the scoring race.
The 17th win on the Penguin’s streak also came against the Rangers at home. Mario did not tally a goal or assist, one of the rare games in the streak where the Penguin’s captain did not contribute. His team was able to pick up the slack thanks to goals by Stevens, Tippett, and Tocchet and solid goal-tending by Wregget.
The last game of the season brought the Penguins to New Jersey, where the streak would end at seventeen. The 6-6 tie was a precursor of the first road of the playoffs which the Penguins would claim victory four games to one against the New Jersey Devils. Mario had 3 points (2G,1A) in the tie, ending the winning streak with a total of sixty points (23G, 27A) over the course of seventeen games,
The momentum which had carried the Penguins through the streak seemed to persist through the first round of the playoffs, but the team’s energy began to wane against the New York Islanders in the second round. An overtime goal by the Islander’s David Volek in the seventh game dispatched the Penguin’s hopes of a third consecutive Stanley Cup.
The Penguins were stunned; the best team they had ever fielded was unable to reaching the Cup finals. Looking back at the season, the players tried to find reasons to explain the team’s failure. In the wake of the loss, Larry Murphy saw the unsettling aspects of the long winning streak. He saw the complacency building amongst his teammates and the associated loss of drive. In his words, the Penguins had acquired a false sense of security.
Great expectations without adequate dedication resulted in poor playoff execution, and the 93′ Penguins were left dissatisfied with their season. Had they tried too hard to maintain the streak? Did the streak matter more than their season? The players were left to decide for themselves. As they watched the Islanders lose to the Montreal Canadiens in the next round, the Penguins were forced to think of what could have been.
While the 93′ Penguins are certainly deserving of respect, their early exit from the playoffs raises questions for the hopes of the 2013′ Penguins. Both teams entered the post-season as the #1 seed in their conference. Both teams were pegged as the potential Cup winner long before the post-season. The similarities run quite deep, but the differences are important as well. Beginning in the next part, I will break down the 2013′ winning streak and how it stacks up against the best Penguin’s team to ever play the game.