CHICAGO – The Stanley Cup the Penguins won last spring was more fun. Doing anything the first time always is most enjoyable. But that was only part of it. The other part was Badger Bob Johnson. You couldn’t help but feel his joy.
But that doesn’t diminish the accomplishments of this Penguin team. In every respect, the Cup it secured on that June 1 night at the old barn they call Chicago Stadium was more astonishing.
“It seems like a fairy tale,” Rick Tocchet would say later in the locker room, spraying everyone in sight with champagne, beer, soda – whatever liquid he could find.
“But it’s true. Believe me, it’s true.”
The clinching game was fairly typical. The Chicago Blackhawks scored five goals. The Penguins scored six.
Chuck Noll had a phrase for this sort of thing: Whatever it takes.
They gave the Conn Smythe trophy as the playoff MVP to Mario Lemieux, a most deserving winner. He scored16 playoff goals, averaged 2.27 points per game, and played spectacular defense. But he said he wanted to give a hunk of the hardware to Tom Barrasso. And they could have given pieces to Jaromir Jagr and Ron Francis. It seemed as if everybody contributed to this Cup, to the early survival tests against Washington and the New York Rangers, and to the stunning 11-game winning streak that ended the run.
“Every team that wins the Cup overcomes adversity,” Bryan Trottier said. “But this team did it to the 10th degree. It’s chilling, chilling I tell you.”
There was Johnson’s brain cancer last August and his death in November. There was the sale of the team from Edward DeBartolo Sr. to a group headed by Howard Baldwin. There was the first players’ strike in NHL history.
All that before the first playoff game.
You remember the Penguins’ onerous path to the Cup, don’t you?
They get off to a rough start in their first-round series against Washington. Lemieux is scratched in game one with a shoulder injury and they lose, 3-1. Things quickly get worse. They lose game four at home, 7-2, to fall behind three games to one. The angry Civic Arena crowd boos Elvis out of the building.
Kevin Stevens is down. “I never thought this team could be so bad.” The media critics blast away. The bearded columnist in town says the team is playing like “dogmeat” and suggests the Cup it won last season was a fluke.
Interim coach Scotty Bowman is philosophical. “We appealed to the players’ pride. We told them, ‘You can’t let the fans go out with that game on their minds. It’s going to be a tough summer for you guys. I don’t live here. You do.’ ”
Spirits are buoyed by a come-from-behind, 5-2 victory in game five at Washington. And they soar when Lemieux scores twice to rally the Penguins from a 4-2 deficit in a 6-4 victory in game six. All that remains in the improbable comeback is the 3-1 victory on the road in game seven. Jagr scores the game-winning goal, one of what seems like a dozen game-winning goals for him.
“I can’t wait to get to New York to play the Rangers,” Stevens gushes afterward. “We’re dying to play the Rangers.”
New York was the NHL’s regular-season champion. All goes well in the first game; the Penguins win 4-2. But in game two, Adam Graves breaks a bone in Lemieux’s left hand with a wicked slash and Kris King ends Joe Mullen’s season with a vicious check. The hockey world screams. New York coach Roger Neilson is portrayed as a goon coach. The Penguins pick up thousands of fans across North America.
But things look bleak when the Penguins, playing without Lemieux and with guys named Callander and Needham, lose games two and three and fall behind, 4-2, in game four. That’s when Rangers goaltender Mike Richter opens the door by misplaying a long slap shot by Francis midway through the final period. The Penguins kick down the door, getting the tying goal from Troy Loney and the game-winner in a 5-4 overtime victory from Francis, the hero of the series.
Trottier says the team’s leaders – notably Stevens and Tocchet – won’t allow the Penguins to lose. “Tocchet keeps saying, ‘We can’t let them get away with [the Lemieux slash]. We’ve got to make them pay. We’ve got to find a way to beat them.”
The Penguins win game five in New York, 3-2, when Jagr scores a terrific goal with 5 ½ minutes left. And they close out the series at home with a 5-1 victory in game six. Jagr gets another game-winner. Shawn McEachern scores his first NHL goal. The Arena crowd, which had jeered Barrasso early in the series, chants, “Tom-my, Tom-my,” as he stops 33 of 34 shots. And it sends the Rangers home with a thunderous chant of “1940, 1940,” the last year they won the Cup.
“They say adversity makes you stronger,” Bowman says. “I can’t imagine any team facing more adversity or any team being stronger than this one.”
Boston is next in the Wales Conference final. The Penguins win game one, 4-3, despite playing horribly. No one gets to read about it in Pittsburgh, though. The newspaper strike starts on this night.
Lemieux returns for game two, and the Bruins are finished. He gets two goals and an assist in the 5-2 victory. He gets assists on three of Stevens’ four goals in the 5-1 victory in game three. And he scores twice – the first goal, an incredible goal, comes when he skates by All-Star defenseman Ray Bourque – in the 5-1 victory in game four.
“It’s magic,” Ulf Samuelsson says of the Penguins in general and Lemieux in particular. He can’t stop smiling even though he lost his two front teeth from a high stick by Boston’s Joe Juneau.
“Right now, we’re living in Mario’s World,” Trottier says. “If I had to describe him in two words, they would be these, “Only perfect.”
The final hurdle is Chicago. The Penguins fight back from a 4-1 deficit to win game one, 5-4. Jagr scores the tying goal – “Probably the greatest goal I’ve ever seen,” says Lemieux, the man who designs great goals – by stick-handling around three Blackhawks. Lemieux wins the game with a power-play goal with 13 seconds left.
Chicago coach Mike Keenan screams that Lemieux took “a dive” to draw the decisive penalty and says Lemieux is an embarrassment to himself and the NHL. Lemieux has no comment but has plenty to say in game two, scoring the final two goals in the Penguins’ 3-1 victory.
It’s on to noisy Chicago Stadium for game three. Barrasso throws a 1-0 shutout. Stevens scores the game-winner – “A fluke goal,” Keenan calls it – when he deflects a Jim Paek slapshot past goalie Ed Belfour.
“I can see myself holding the Stanley Cup,” Tocchet says.
It finally happened. Tocchet was the third player to hoist the Cup, accepting it from Samuelsson, who took it from Lemieux. Tocchet had been dreaming about this moment since he was a kid. You could feel his joy, too.
As Tocchet passed the Cup to Bob Errey and the Penguins continued to frolic, one thought kept coming to mind. It was something Stevens had said before the playoffs. “When you win one Stanley Cup, people can say you’re lucky. But when you win two in a row – and I really think we have a chance to do that – you’re talking the start of a dynasty… I want our team to be remembered as a great team, not just as a team that happened to win one Cup.”
Stevens was reminded of that as he pushed slowly through the delirious locker room. He smiled. “I think we proved our point. We are a great team. We’re THE team right now.”