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1991 Stanley Cup Champions - 20th Anniversary

by Staff Writer / Pittsburgh Penguins
On May 25, 1991 the Penguins defeated the Minnesota North Stars 8-0 to capture the first Stanley Cup championship in team history. On the 20th anniversary of the milestone achievement, we take a look back at the team's exciting playoff run and Stanley Cup Final battle with Minnesota.

The Penguins won their first regular-season Patrick Division title with a 41-33-6 record, and opened the 1991 Stanley Cup playoffs against the New Jersey Devils. Pittsburgh dropped the first game of the series, 3-1, and Game 2 went into overtime. The team was looking at a possible 2-0 hole to open the playoffs. But 19-year-old rookie winger Jaromir Jagr erased that possibility. In an unbelievable individual effort, the Czech native carried the puck hard to the net and juked the Devils defensemen and goaltender Chris Terreri before scoring the overtime winner, 5-4, to even the series at 1-1.

After the Penguins won Game 3, 4-3, to take the series lead, the Devils responded by triumphing in Games 4 and 5 to push the Penguins to edge of elimination. On top of that, the Penguins had to play Game 6 without starting goaltender Tom Barrasso due to a shoulder injury. However, backup goalie Frank Pietrangelo – in his NHL playoff debut – made the most memorable stop in team history. In what has been dubbed “The Save,” Pietrangelo reached back desperately with his glove to snatch up a Peter Stastny shot into what appeared to be a wide-open net. Thanks to that save, the Penguins survived with a 4-3 victory to force a Game 7 in Pittsburgh.

The Penguins had a boost in Game 7 as defenseman Paul Coffey returned to the ice from a scratched cornea he suffered earlier in the series. Coffey scored one of four Pittsburgh goals and Pietrangelo stopped all 27 shots he faced to record only the second shutout in team postseason history to best the Devils, 4-0, and advance in the playoffs.

The Penguins had a showdown with the Washington Capitals in the Patrick Division finals – little did the clubs know this would be the first of many playoff contests between the two teams throughout the years.

The second round was looking eerily similar to the first round. The Penguins dropped the opening game, 4-2, and found themselves playing in overtime in Game 2. But again, Pittsburgh was able to avoid a 2-0 series deficit as Kevin Stevens buried a shot from the slot off a great pass from Ron Francis to pull even with the Capitals. Unfortunately, the Penguins didn’t escape the game unscathed. Paul Coffey suffered a broken jaw after getting hit in the face with a shot. The injury would sideline him until the Stanley Cup Final, meaning the Penguins would be without their best defenseman for possibly four weeks.

Tom Barrasso returned between the pipes in Game 3. He surrendered only three goals over the next three games. Coincidently the Penguins won all three contests to take a 4-1 series victory. Pittsburgh won its first-ever Patrick Division title and would next play for the Prince of Wales Championship.  

The Penguins would have a tough test in the Prince of Wales Conference Championship against Adams Division champion Boston. The Bruins boasted the best regular-season record in the conference with a 44-24-12 mark. And Boston had been well tested, having played in the Stanley Cup Final in two of the previous three seasons.

(For a more in-depth look at the showdown with the Bruins, click here).

In this series, the Penguins would play the first two games on the road. And for the third straight series, Pittsburgh lost the opening game and was in an overtime battle in Game 2. But this time, the Penguins were not able to avoid a 2-0 series setback. Vladimir Ruzicka was the overtime hero for Boston as the Bruins were two wins away from a third Cup Final appearance in four seasons.

However, Kevin Stevens told the Pittsburgh Press following the Game 2 loss, “We’ll beat this team. I’ll say it right now, we’ll beat this team.”

The Penguins rode Stevens’ words (plus his Game 3 goal and assist) and Tom Barrasso’s 27 saves for a 4-1 victory in Game 3. But the focal point of the game was that Boston’s star Cam Neely was lost for the series following a collision with Ulf Samuelsson. The hit started a war of words between the coaches (Pittsburgh's Bob Johnson and Boston's Mike Mulbury) and ignited some angst between the two clubs.

Pittsburgh pulled off another 4-1 win in Game 4 to even the series at 2-2. The series shifted to Boston for the pivotal Game 5. That’s where the Penguins took charge. The Pittsburgh offense ignited for seven goals in a lopsided 7-2 triumph, which was also the first win for the club in Boston on the year.

The Penguins’ momentum carried over into Game 6. Mark Recchi broke a 3-3 tie in the third period with a nasty wrist shot while skating down the far side. Penguins captain Mario Lemieux sealed the game with an empty-net goal and the Penguins completed their fourth straight win to dispatch the Bruins and advance to the team’s first-ever Stanley Cup Final. Lemieux accepted the Prince of Wales Trophy in front of a rambunctious Civic Arena crowd.

The Minnesota North Stars were the least likely Stanley Cup finalist. The team finished the 1990-91 campaign with a 27-39-14 record (12 games below .500) and finished 15th out of 20 teams in the NHL standings.

Photo: Pittsburgh Penguins
However, the North Stars proved to be an upset machine, knocking off the top two teams in the NHL and the defending champions to earn a chance to play for Lord Stanley’s chalice.

Minnesota opened the playoffs against Presidents’ Trophy-winning Chicago (49-23-8), shocking the Blackhawks in six games to knock off the NHL’s top team in the opening round. The North Stars became the first team in 20 years to eliminate the Presidents’ Trophy winner in the opening round.

The Stars next had a showdown with St. Louis, which finished second overall in the NHL standings with a 47-22-11 record. The Stars held star forward Brett Hull in check during the series and after six contests won the Norris Division.

Minnesota had a date next with the Edmonton Oilers, the defending Cup champions, in the Clarence Campbell Conference Championship. The Stars opened the series with another road victory in Game 1. The Oilers triumphed in Game 2 to even the series. However, it was all Minnesota from there as the North Stars won the next three games to win the series, 4-1, and advance to their second-ever Stanley Cup Final appearance.

Game 1 – The anticipation for Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final in Pittsburgh was off the charts. The city was hosting hockey’s championship series for the first time in the franchise’s 24-year history.

The excited Civic Arena crowd had something to cheer about as Ulf Samuelsson scored to give Pittsburgh a 1-0 lead. However, the North Stars would battle back. The two teams traded chances, goals and leads. When the game ended the Penguins lost the game, 5-4, and dropped the opening game of the series for the fourth straight time in the 1991 playoffs.  

Game 2 – The Penguins had an injection of life entering Game 2 as Paul Coffey, out since the opening series with a broken jaw, returned to the ice. While he saw limited minutes, his presence was a boost for his teammates.

Kevin Stevens scored two goals and Tom Barrasso made 39 saves as the Penguins skated away with a 4-1 win that evened the series at 1-1. The game also provided the setting for the most breathtaking and brilliant individual play in club history.

Pittsburgh held a precarious 2-1 lead when captain Mario Lemieux pulled off the greatest goal in team annals. Phil Bourque corralled a loose puck in his own zone and pushed it ahead to Lemieux. The captain carried the rubber up ice with speed against two Minnesota defenders. Lemieux crossed the blue line and split the defensemen, sliding the puck through the stick and legs of Neil Wilkinson. He then dangled the puck to his backhand from an aggressive poke-check attempt by goaltender Jon Casey and slid it over the goal line.

Game 3 – The series shifted to the unfriendly confines at the Met Center in Bloomington, Minnesota, a place where the North Stars had been practically unbeatable, losing only twice since mid-January. To make matters worse, Lemieux was a last-minute scratch prior to the game. The North Stars scored two goals in a 33-second span en route to a 3-1 win and a 2-1 series lead.

Following the North Stars’ Game 3 triumph the city started planning its championship parades and other such festivities.

Photo: Pittsburgh Penguins
Game 4 – As if hearing Minnesota’s premature Cup celebration plans wasn’t enough to motivate the Penguins, superstar Mario Lemieux was back on the ice for Game 4.

The Penguins scored three goals in the first 2:58 minutes of the contest to jump out to an early 3-0 lead.  Bryan Trottier’s second-period goal gave Pittsburgh a 4-1 lead. However, the North Stars fought back to cut the deficit to one goal, 4-3.

Despite trailing, the Stars had a golden opportunity to put a stranglehold on the series late in the third period. Troy Loney was assessed a five-minute major and game misconduct for hi-sticking with 6:57 minutes left in regulation. The Minnesota power play (which set an NHL record with 35 man-advantage tallies during the ’91 postseason that still stands to this day) had a chance to score as many times as it could in five minutes.

But the Penguins’ penalty killers were at their finest. They sealed off the blue line, were aggressive in puck pursuit and cut off passing lanes. Minnesota didn’t even register a shot on net. Phil Bourque finished off the game with an empty-netter for a 5-3 win.

Game 5 – The series returned to Pittsburgh all even at 2-2. It became a best-of-three series for hockey’s holy grail. But the team that won the pivotal Game 5 would be just one victory shy of claiming the ultimate glory.

Much like the previous contest, the Penguins came out the gate with an all-out blitz. Lemieux started the scoring with a power-play goal to give the Penguins a 1-0 advantage. Kevin Stevens added a power-play tally for his 17th postseason goal. Mark Recchi then scored twice to give the Penguins a 4-0 lead in the first period.

Minnesota coach Bob Gainey pulled goaltender Jon Casey in favor of Brian Hayward. The North Stars posted two shorthanded goals to cut the lead to 4-2 (the second score was against Frank Pietrangelo, who replaced Tom Barrasso to start the second period after Barrasso strained his groin).

Photo: Pittsburgh Penguins
Pittsburgh got a little breathing room after Ron Francis scored from the far circle late in second to make it a 5-2 game. But the Stars, once again, fought back. Two quick strikes from Ulf Dahlen and Dave Gagner made it a one-goal game, 5-4.

The Penguins and North Stars traded chances as the final minutes of the game ticked away, with neither team finding much luck. But in the final minute, Pittsburgh connected on a score that would seal the victory. Troy Loney charged hard to the net and Larry Murphy’s shot went off Loney and into the cage as the Penguins skated away with a 6-4 win.  

Game 6 – The Penguins made a trip back to Bloomington, Minnesota for Game 6, but they weren’t the only ones. The Stanley Cup traveled to the Twin Cities with the possibility that it could be making a trip back to Pittsburgh with the Penguins.

But first, the Penguins had to defeat Minnesota and finish off the series. An early penalty set the stage for an onslaught that was about to come. On the ensuing power play, Ulf Samuelsson collected the puck at the near point. His seemingly harmless shot from the point found its way through Jon Casey and into the net to give Pittsburgh a 1-0 lead.

It was all Penguins from there.

Mario Lemieux and Joey Mullen would tally to give the Penguins a 3-0 first-period lead. Bob Errey, Mullen again and Ron Francis would add goals to give Pittsburgh a 6-0 runaway lead.

Rookie Jim Paek and veteran Larry Murphy would add the finishing touches on an eventual 8-0 shutout victory for the Penguins. Tom Barrasso stopped all 39 shots in the contest and when the clock hit 0:00, the Penguins were Stanley Cup champions.

Mario Lemieux was named the Conn Smythe winner as playoff MVP following his 16-goal, 44-point effort. Lemieux, Coffey and Errey were presented with the Cup at center ice. All the season’s hard work and effort finally paid off as every player skated around the ice hoisting the Stanley Cup over his heads.

Years of waiting and patience had finally paid off for the city of Pittsburgh, as it finally had a taste of hockey glory and the championship of the National Hockey League.

“Badger” Bob Johnson and the 1990-91 Penguins finally delivered on their promise by winning the Stanley Cup and bringing it to the city of Pittsburgh.

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