Pittsburgh had a 32-39-8 record entering the final game of the regular season, a showdown with the Buffalo Sabres at Civic Arena. As the game went into overtime all Pittsburgh had to do was hold on for a tie and it would have earned a playoff berth.
However, Buffalo's Uwe Krupp scored one minute into overtime to eliminate the Pens from the playoffs. It was a devastating blow to a franchise that appeared to turn a corner by making the postseason in 1989 following a six-year playoff drought.
"That one stunk for a lot of us," Phil Bourque recalled. "Buffalo didn't need that game and we just needed to not lose in overtime to get in the playoffs. And what stunk even more is because we got knocked out by losing in overtime."
After that loss, general manager Craig Patrick famously said, "as long as I'm here as the general manager, we're never gonna miss the playoffs again."
Although it was a tough loss, it was a blessing in disguise. Due to the loss, Pittsburgh ended up with the fifth-overall selection in the NHL Draft. The Pens used the selection to draft franchise cornerstone and future Hall of Famer Jaromir Jagr.
"At the draft everybody was interviewing Jagr, all the top teams," Patrick said. "Jaromir told all of them he wasn't coming over (from Czechoslovakia). When we interviewed him, he said, 'I'll come right away' because he idolized Mario and he wanted to play with the Penguins. So he kind of lied to everybody else and was left open for us to pick."
Jagr was another piece to the puzzle. The Pens had many key pieces to be a contender, including the best player in the NHL in Mario Lemieux and an emerging supporting cast featuring Paul Coffey, Kevin Stevens, Bryan Trottier, Mark Recchi, Phil Bourque, Bob Errey and Tom Barrasso.
What they needed now was a coach.
IT'S A GREAT DAY FOR HOCKEY
Patrick had been filling in a dual role of GM and head coach since being hired by the organization in the middle of the 1989-90 season.
On Dec. 14, Patrick was at the Met Center while the Pens prepared to face the Minnesota North Stars. He went to a payphone outside the dressing room and placed a call to Bob Johnson.
Johnson, who was often referred to as "Badger" from his days coaching college hockey at Wisconsin, had prior commitments to USA Hockey, but wanted the job. So that summer Johnson arrived.
The Penguins franchise was known more for its shortcomings at the time. In their history they had become the first NHL team to blow a 3-0 lead in the playoffs, the team filed for bankruptcy and they missed the postseason in seven of the last eight seasons heading into 1990-91.
Johnson wanted to change the team's mindset and mentality.
"The players at first didn't take to Bob because they couldn't believe how upbeat he was all the time," Patrick said. "Halfway through the year they started believing in Bob and the message he was sending them and the way he treated them."
Johnson's trademark statement still remains inscribed on the walls outside of the Pens' locker room: "It's a great day for hockey."
"(Johnson) cared about you as a person," Errey said. "It was the questions he asked away from hockey. 'Did you eat your oatmeal this morning?' 'Did you get that station wagon you've been talking about?' It was the little things he said that, sometimes, weren't even hockey related."
"The positive influence he had on all of us as a coach and a role model and mentor was pretty special," Coffey said.
But despite the new atmosphere, something was still off about the team.
"The chemistry wasn't very good. We needed to change the chemistry and we needed to change our defense," Patrick said. "When I got (Johnson) here, we started working on all that and we made some pretty good moves."
Patrick's first move came in the summer with the acquisition of Joe Mullen. He followed that in December by adding Larry Murphy, Peter Taglianetti and Jiri Hrdina.
But his biggest splash came at the trade deadline in March. That's when Hartford Whalers GM Eddie Johnston called Patrick.
"He called me and said, 'I've been told I have to trade Ronnie Francis,'" Patrick remembered. But the man Johnston was gunning for was forward John Cullen, who was second in the NHL in scoring at the time. Patrick needed more than just Francis.
"We went back and forth for a couple of weeks and he threw in Ulf Samuelsson," Patrick said. "We kept going back and forth and finally it came down."
The Pens would also pick up Grant Jennings, along with Francis and Samuelsson, in the agreement in exchange for Cullen, Zarley Zalapski and Jeff Parker.
"It was a crazy time for me," Francis said. "My wife and I had our first child in February and were trying to get our life back and on our feet. The phone call came in at 9 o'clock at night and I was on a 7 a.m. flight to Pittsburgh.
"I knew from a hockey standpoint it was an exciting trade because I was going to a team that was very competitive and had a lot of pieces, and a chance to win."
The Pens finished the regular season by winning their first-ever division title and entered the postseason as the No. 1 seed in the Patrick Division. They hosted the New Jersey Devils.
After losing Game 5 on home ice to the Devils, 4-2, the Pens found themselves facing an elimination game in New Jersey two days later. To make things worse, they were without the starting goaltender Tom Barrasso.
So the team turned to backup Frank Pietrangelo in goal. And the history of the franchise would be forever changed.
The Pens were leading 2-1 in the contest when they found themselves on a penalty kill. A shot came from the near side that Pietrangelo stopped, but the rebound squirted free into the slot with six-time All-Star Peter Stastny looking into an open net. In a desperation move, Pietrangelo reach out his arm and managed to make a glove save.
"I never get tired of watching it," said Bourque, who saw the play up close while on the ice. "I had to rotate down to the front of the net where Stastny was and I was late to get there. He had a wide-open cage. Nobody had a better seat in the house than I did. To see a wide-open, 4x6 and out of nowhere comes the left glove hand of Frankie."
The Pens would go on to win Game 6 by a score of 4-3. Two days later they beat New Jersey a final time in the decisive Game 7 in Pittsburgh, 4-0, to advance to the Patrick Division Final.
"You look at every team that's won a Stanley Cup and you can go back to moments like that where if he doesn't make that save and you lose that game, you never move on," Bourque said. "Frankie wasn't one of the best goaltenders to ever play the game. In fact, he'll admit that he was an average goalie. But he made one of the greatest saves in the history of the game. Here we are 25 years later still talking about it tells you the significance of it."
The Pens defeated Washington in five games to win the Patrick Division title. They then met the Adams Division champion and favorite Boston Bruins in the Wales Conference Final. Things got off to a rocky start when Pittsburgh dropped the first two games of the series.
It was then that Kevin Stevens made the guarantee of his life.
Stevens, a Boston native, told Dave Molinari of the Pittsburgh Press: "We're confident we can beat this team. And we will beat this team … We'll beat this team. I'll say it right now, we'll beat them."
Stevens backed up his words by opening the scoring in Game 3 en route to a 4-1 win. Stevens would post six goals and 10 points as Pittsburgh won four-straight games to eliminate the Bruins.
The Penguins hosted the Minnesota North Stars in the Stanley Cup Final. And as they had in the previous three playoff series, they lost Game 1.
But in Game 2 Lemieux would score his signature goal - the one that defines his career. He carried the puck from his own blue line, deked through two Stars defenders before masterfully beating goaltender Jon Casey.
"As I'm making my way to the bench I'm watching this unfold," said Bourque, whose pass sprung Lemieux. "Him undressing Neil Wilkinson and what he did to Jon Casey was just ridiculous. One of the greatest goals you'll ever see in not only Penguins history, but NHL history."
Pittsburgh faced one final bit of adversity. After the North Stars won Game 3 to take a 2-1 series lead, they were poised to win Game 4 to put a stranglehold on the Cup. Things looked even more bleak when Minnesota was given a five-minute power play. Incredibly, the Pens not only killed the penalty, but held the Stars to zero shots on goal.
The Pens would win three straight contests, including a dominating 8-0 victory in the climactic Game 6 in Minnesota, to win their first Stanley Cup title in franchise history.
"The Stanley Cup has come to the city of Pittsburgh!" Hall of Fame broadcaster Mike Lange belted as the final buzzer sounded. "The 1991 Stanley Cup Champions, the Pittsburgh Penguins."
The lovable losers were finally champions. A franchise that had faced everything from playoff droughts to poor trades to tragic deaths to bankruptcy and even moving locations, had achieved hockey's highest honor.
"A lot goes into getting to that point," Bourque said. "The early morning rides with your dad to a rink, all the teammates and coaches that got you to that point, all the people who said, 'Ah that Bourque guy, he'll never make it.' All those emotions come back in a 30-second span."
Pittsburgh hoisted the Stanley Cup at the Met Center and celebrated in the locker room, just a few feet from where Patrick made his famous payphone call to Johnson, asking if he was interested in coaching the Penguins.
"It was kind of unique that I made the call from there and then we won the Cup from there," Patrick said.
It was also the fulfillment of a wish by Francis after he arrived in March during a stressful moment in his life and career.
"I remember Bob (Johnson) saying go see a movie, get out and relax," Francis said. "Walking out of the theater I happened to look up at the sky and saw a shooting star. I thought that was a pretty good omen. So I made a little wish and sure enough three months later it came true."
PARTY ALL SUMMER
The Pens flew back to Pittsburgh that evening and were overwhelmed by the masses of people that flocked to the airport awaiting their arrival.
"We were getting updates from the pilot," Bourque said. "'There's 5,000 people at the airport, there's 10,000 people at the airport, there's 20,000 people at the airport.' We get off the plane, it was pandemonium."
"When we arrived at 2 a.m., nobody could move," Patrick said. "The airport was packed with people, so they had to make a path for us to get off the plane and we couldn't even get to our cars. Most of us didn't make it home."
The team went to Barrasso's home in Sewickley to continue an all-night celebration. And some players didn't make it home until the following morning, with a little help from some fans.
"On the way back (to our cars) the bus runs out of gas," Bourque said. "The suns coming up and we're out by Route 60. I'm hanging my thumb up and sure enough some guy's about to go to work, pulls his car over. He goes, 'Hey aren't you Phil Bourque? Jim Paek? Did you guys just win the Cup?' I'm like yeah, we're trying to get home.'"
The fan responded: "I'm about to go to work, but forget that. I'm not going to work. I'll drive you guys home."
After the team's parade they ended up at Point State Park. And that's where Bourque uttered a line that encapsulated the win and the city's emotions.
"I had no idea what I was going to say when it was my turn at the podium," Bourque said. "Mike (Lange) said, 'Bourquey, give 'em something to remember you by.' I just walked up to the podium and it just came to me."
Bourque raised the Cup over his head and yelled: "What do you say we take this down to the river and party all summer!"