They were a team a character and characters, of great players beginning their careers and great ones winding them down. They were a constantly changing cast but also a constantly improving one, and by the time the playoffs began, they were certain that a franchise that had never won even a conference championship was ready to win the Stanley Cup.
The Penguins did it -- and then they did it again.
As those Penguins of 20 years ago reunited for a dinner and a golf outing Tuesday, they swapped stories, compared waistlines and recalled how a team coming off a losing season overcame its best player's long injury layoff, a slow start, and a history of failure to win hockey's biggest prize.
"There's a lot of reminiscing and a lot of laughter. Even after 20 years, the personalities don't change. The guys that were the jokesters are still the jokesters," defenseman Larry Murphy said. It brings back a lot of memories."
It was an eminently memorable season that began in a highly forgettable way.
Star center Mario Lemieux, only 25 but already in his seventh NHL season, was on the shelf -- actually, he was in near traction -- with a back injury that hadn't healed from the previous season. Lemieux was nearly immobile for weeks, and there were considerable doubts about when he would play that season -- if at all.
Lemieux, a remarkably skilled player who scored on his very first NHL shift in 1984 and never let up after that, was a true star yet had experienced only one winning NHL season. The season before, the Penguins finished 32-40-8 and missed out on the playoffs on the season's final day.
Even with Lemieux out, the Penguins had plenty of scorers -- Mark Recchi, John Cullen, Kevin Stevens, star defenseman Paul Coffey and an 18-year-old rookie named Jaromir Jagr among them -- yet they lacked an identity and, too, a toughness.
As the season progressed, coach Bob Johnson gave them that identity. A marvelous trading deadline deal by general manager Craig Patrick gave them the toughness.
Johnson, a longtime college coach who had previously coached the Calgary Flames for five seasons, lived by the mantra, "It's a great day for hockey." It was one of a number of homespun sayings that Johnson dropped regularly, and some of his players found them a bit college-like at first.
"He believes in team unity, bringing a team together and the chemistry that he could put together. The way he did it, he was a little different character and he did things his way," Stevens said Tuesday. "Some stuff we used to look at and say, 'That's for 2-year-olds.' But there was always a plan behind it, and he really helped us get over the top. "
Johnson, who had lost a Stanley Cup Final with Calgary in 1986 and was desperate to get back and win one, also brought to the Penguins a previously missing commitment to defense -- even if a team built around a deep cast of scorers didn't fully grasp some of the concepts until well into a season that didn't take on a distinctive look until very late.
Murphy gave the Penguins a much-needed two-way defenseman when he came over in a midseason trade from Minnesota, the team Pittsburgh would ultimately meet in the Stanley Cup Final. There was also a different feel once Lemieux returned in late January after sitting out two-thirds of the season.
Lemieux scored 19 goals and had 45 points in 26 games, amid a growing feeling that the best was yet to come from a team that was in third place in its division before Lemieux came back.
The Penguins took off after Patrick shrewdly dealt Cullen, who had 31 points and 94 goals in 65 games with Pittsburgh, along with defenseman Zarley Zalapski and prospect Jeff Parker to Hartford for center Ron Francis and defensemen Ulf Samuelsson and Grant Jennings.
Now, they were a team.
"You get Mario back and it's like a trade. Then you get Samuelsson and Francis, and it was huge for us to get those two guys, even though we had to trade one of our best players -- no one wanted to see Culley get traded," Stevens said. "Defensively, Ulfie was as hard a guy as there was to play against. We didn't have a guy who could play against the other team's top guy and play physical."
Samuelsson also gave Lemieux the protective bodyguard he had long lacked. Francis was a Hall of Fame center who brought a scoring touch, a veteran's steadying presence and considerable character to a fast-changing but fast-improving team. In goal, Tom Barrasso often saved his best play for the biggest games.
"You don't want to be the best team in October; you want to be the best team, in April and May, and that's what happened," Murphy said. "The environment was one of improvement. We had the tools, and then we added a couple of pieces at the end, the type of players that we needed to put us over the top, and that's exactly what happened."
As it was occurring, forward Bryan Trottier -- a four-time Stanley Cup winner with the Islanders -- watched a raw but immensely skilled youngster named Jagr transform himself from a prospect into a player in a matter of months. Jagr produced 27 goals and 57 points and was a valuable addition to a team already blessed with a gift for scoring.
"He was a young horse and fun to play with," Trottier said. "We were getting 8 to 12 minutes a game from Jaromir and I, and he was 8 to 12 minutes of danger."
The Flyers hope he still is; Jagr returns to the NHL this season with the Flyers after playing three years in Russia's KHL.
And the leading scorer on that 1990-91 team? A 23-year-old Recchi with 40 goals and 113 points in 78 games. Twenty years later, he was a Cup champion again this past spring with the Boston Bruins.
"We had a lot of depth and more skill than I think people realize," Trottier said. "It didn't seem to matter who went down, guys could sneak up a line or two and contribute offensively."
The Penguins finished the regular season with a 9-3-2 burst to win their first division championship, then rebounded from a 3-2 series deficit to beat the Devils in a playoff round remembered for backup goalie Frank Pietrangelo's impossible, series-saving glove stop against Peter Stastny in Game 6.
With Lemieux piling up points at a dazzling pace, the Penguins took out Washington in five games, then rallied again -- this time from a 2-0 series deficit -- to beat the Bruins in six games for the Eastern Conference championship. Stevens, angered and motivated by twin losses in Boston, boldly guaranteed the Penguins would win the series -- and they rolled to four straight wins.
They dropped Games 1 and 3 in the Stanley Cup Final to a North Stars team that was coming off a 27-39-14 regular season, but won the final three games. Lemieux's dazzling breakaway goal highlighted a 5-3 win at home in Game 5, and the Final ended with an 8-0 rout at Minnesota in Game 6.
When the Penguins arrived home at 2:30 on a Sunday morning, they discovered the whole city -- well, an estimated 40,000 fans -- were waiting up to celebrate. At one point, traffic backed up the 17-mile length of the Parkway West from downtown to the airport to welcome home Pittsburgh's first Stanley Cup champion.
There would be another Cup, and another celebration, a year later -- although, sadly, Johnson would not live to see it. He died of brain cancer six months after the Penguins lifted the Cup. A possible third Cup got away when the 1993 Penguins -- easily the best regular-season team in team history -- lost Game 7 of the Patrick Division Finals on home ice to the Islanders in overtime.
Still, that 1990-91 Penguins team changed the culture of Pittsburgh hockey. From then on, except for a brief stretch from 2002-05 when the franchise was regaining its financial legs, the Penguins have gone into each season believing they can win the Stanley Cup.
"I think it's pretty high every year, the expectation that we're going to compete to win the Stanley Cup," coach Dan Bylsma said. "That's the understanding about the quality of our organization."
It's been a great day for hockey in Pittsburgh ever since.
Author: Alan Robinson | NHL.com Correspondent