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A History of Resilience

by Kevin Allen @ByKevinAllen / Pittsburgh Penguins

Kevin spent 34 seasons covering the NHL for USA Today and is one of the most respected hockey journalists in the world. He covered all five of the Penguins' Stanley Cups, from Mario Lemieux to Sidney Crosby, and offers this perspective on the organization's resilience.

The Pittsburgh Penguins' ability to overcome major injuries and illnesses isn't the franchise's trademark as much as it is their history.

"It's part of the fabric of being a Penguin," said NBC analyst and former Pittsburgh player and coach Ed Olczyk. "It doesn't matter what player is hurt or what decade it is, you are going to be competitive and you are going to be in a position to win. It's a next-man-up mentality."

This has been the Penguins' way since the early 1990s when Mario Lemieux's wonky back made it impossible for him to play every game. When the Penguins won back-to-back Stanley Cups in 1991 and 1992, Lemieux was healthy enough to play exactly half (80 of 160) of the Penguins' regular-season games. 

He was a two-points-per-game player, but when Lemieux was out of the lineup, the Penguins always seemed just as dangerous.

"Mario is out. Ronny (Francis) is out. Sid's out. Letang's out. Fleury's down," Olczyk said. "Through the years, it doesn't seem to matter who's hurt. It's really a credit to the organization and to the coaches who get the guys to continue to buy in."

This season, the Penguins' injury report reads like another horror story. Nick Bjugstad has been out 32 games. Crosby has missed 25, because of surgery to repair a core muscle injury. Defenseman Brian Dumoulin has lost 19 games to injury and Justin Schultz has missed 15. Patric Hornqvist has been sidelined for 17 games. Bryan Rust and Evgeni Malkin have sat out 14 and 13 games, respectively. Letang has missed eight. The Penguins only have five players who have played all 42 games.

Yet somehow, the banged-up Penguins are sitting with the NHL's fourth-best point total.

When Malkin was injured in the second game, naysayers suggested the Penguins were in trouble. They went 7-4 with Malkin gone. While Crosby has been out of the lineup, the Penguins are 15-6-4.

Jake Guentzel was having a phenomenal season (20 goals, 43 points in 39 games), but when the Penguins announced he would be shelved for four to six months, history told us that you can't count out the Penguins just because they lost a key player.

In 2016, they lost important key defenseman Trevor Daley and won the Stanley Cup. The following season. No. 1 defenseman Letang didn't play a single playoff game and the Penguins were able to repeat.

Through Crosby's concussion injury, Letang's illness and Malkin's various injuries, the Penguins have qualified for the playoffs for 13 consecutive seasons. That's the NHL's longest streak. 

"I don't think there is any doubt that this is passed down," Olczyk said.

Former NHL player Tom Laidlaw, who played with the New York Rangers and Los Angeles Kings, believes that as well. It's handed down from one generation to the next in tribal-like fashion.

"I used to see that with the leadership of the Detroit Red Wings as well," Laidlaw said. "They had Gordie Howe and then they had Steve Yzerman and then Nicklas Lidstrom. They set a tone of how the game would be played. It's been the same thing with Pittsburgh. Everyone has the mindset that there are no excuses."

NBC analyst Pierre McGuire, an assistant coach on the 1991-92 Stanley Cup team, points out that the unifying element of the Penguins' historic resilience is Lemieux.

"Everyone back then knew how badly Mario wanted to win the Stanley Cup," McGuire said. "It all started with him in the dressing room. He was the guy everyone looked to."

Lemieux's back pain was severe to the point that dressing room attendant Tracy Luppe had to tie his skates for him.

"The way he worked to stay in the lineup was unbelievable," McGuire said.

McGuire said the hiring of Craig Patrick as general manager also helped launch a culture of resilience. He had been Herb Brooks' assistant for 1980 U.S. Olympic team at Lake Placid. He hired Scotty Bowman and Bob Johnson, both well known for having a genius-level hockey IQ.

"Craig set the vision for the organization, and it was probably pretty similar to the vision that Brooks had for the 1980 Olympic team in terms of the demand for excellence," McGuire said.

McGuire said Penguins back then all understood "that if you wanted to be a Penguin there were certain standards you had to live up to and one was being resilient."

The team's resolve was tested frequently in the 1990s. Johnson was diagnosed with cancer after they won the first Stanley Cup and Bowman had to replace him behind the bench. The Penguins were still able to repeat.

Lemieux was diagnosed with Hodgkin's lymphoma in 1993, endured radiation treatments, and then came back to win the scoring title that season with 160 points in 60 games. He set the bar high for being resilient.

Now with Lemieux owning the team, the bar remains high. It's impossible to know precisely why the Penguins have been able to consistently overcome injuries. It's certainly helped that the Penguins have had two or more superstars for most of the past three decades. The Penguins had Francis and Jaromir Jagr in the early 1990s, and now they have Malkin and Crosby. But it goes beyond that. 

"The common thread is Mario," Olczyk said. "He established the culture. It's how he played and how he battled on and off the ice."

It's also leadership. "Crosby is now Lemieux," Nashville Predators general manager David Poile says in simple explanation.

And players all know about this franchise's history. No player wants to be the who couldn't live up the tradition of persevering in the face of adversity.

"It's fun to play in Pittsburgh," Olczyk said. "And that helps when you do have all of the injuries. That has always been there. It was there when I played there. It was there when I broadcasted and I like to think it was there when I was coaching. I think it's a mindset that helps everyone get through it when there is adversity."

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