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First Wales Conference Champions - 20th Anniversary

by Staff Writer / Pittsburgh Penguins
On this date 20 years ago (May 11, 1991), Mario Lemieux dropped to his knees in celebration after scoring an empty-net goal to clinch a 5-3 victory against the Boston Bruins in Game 6 of the Wales Conference finals at Civic Arena. The win gave the Penguins a 4-2 series triumph and secured the franchise’s first-ever conference championship and trip to the Stanley Cup Final. Here is a look back at that exciting series on the 20th anniversary.

The Penguins entered the 1991 Prince of Wales Conference finals against a tough foe, the Boston Bruins. Pittsburgh had struggled mightily to win games at the Boston Garden over the years, resulting in Penguins head coach “Badger” Bob Johnson measuring the ice surface to show that the offensive zone was the same dimensions as any other NHL arena.

The Penguins were heavy underdogs at the outset of the showdown, and things only got worse after Pittsburgh dropped the first two games in Boston to fall behind in the series. The Bruins skated away with a 6-3 win in Game 1.

The Penguins lost a heartbreaker in Game 2 in overtime. Pittsburgh had the lead late in the game, but the Bruins were awarded a 5-on-3 power play for 1:42 minutes with only 4:11 left in the third period. Craig Janney tied the game with a man-advantage goal and forced overtime. In the extra session Vladimir Ruzicka tallied to give the Bruins a 2-0 series lead.

Following Game 2, coach Johnson was asked about the late two-man advantage. He told the New York Times, “I’ve seen a lot of hockey in my time, and I’ve never seen that before.”

But the biggest words coming from the Penguins locker room after Game 2 came from power forward Kevin Stevens. Despite the loss and series deficit, Stevens told the Pittsburgh Press, “We’ll beat this team. I’ll say it right now, we’ll beat this team.”

Stevens backed up his big talk two days later in Game 3. He scored the game’s opening goal and added an assist as the Penguins netted a 4-1 win. Tom Barrasso made 27 saves to record the victory.

Penguins captain accepts Pittsburgh's first-ever Prince of Wales Trophy in 1991.
Boston’s Cam Neely was lost for the series after going down in the contest. The game ignited a war of words between the coaches as Mike Milbury called Johnson "the professor of goon-ism." 

Barrasso was strong again in Game 4, stopping 29 pucks en route to a 4-1 Pittsburgh win that evened the series at 2-2. Lemieux, Bob Errey and Joey Mullen each recorded a goal and an assist, while Mark Recchi and Ron Francis each posted two helpers.

Despite evening the series at 2-2, the Penguins knew they would have to win at least once on the road to win the series – a daunting task considering the team’s problems in the Garden. But the Penguins returned to Boston for Game 5 with a full dose of momentum behind them.    

The Penguins unleashed their offensive firepower and dispelled any questions about winning in Boston with a 7-2 lopsided triumph, their first victory of the year in Boston, to take a 3-2 series lead.

Stevens and Lemieux led the way for Pittsburgh. Stevens scored two goals and added three assists for a five-point night. Lemieux tallied one goal and three assists for four points. The victory not only had the Penguins faithful believing they could beat the mighty Bruins, but also that this team has a legitimate shot at winning the Stanley Cup.

But before Cup action could begin, the Penguins had to finish off the Bruins. The teams headed to Pittsburgh for a Game 6 showdown at Civic Arena. Boston came out swinging, jumping out to a 2-0 lead. Larry Murphy and Phil Bourque tallied to tie the game.

Pittsburgh grabbed the lead, 3-2, when Gordie Roberts found a loose puck in the slot. The Bruins tied the game again on a Don Sweeney tally after a ruckus in front of the Pittsburgh net.

The Penguins would break the 3-3 deadlock thanks to some great leg work by Recchi. He took a pass off the boards down the far side and snapped a wrist shot past Andy Moog to give Pittsburgh a 4-3 lead. Lemieux cemented the victory – and the Penguins’ first conference championship – with an empty-net goal with 28 seconds remaining.

The Civic Arena crowd counted down the final seconds of the contest and minutes later Lemieux would hoist the Prince of Wales Trophy. The fans roared as the team skated around the ice with the hardware.

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