On its May 8, 1992 front cover, The Hockey News featured an image of a pensive-looking Mario Lemieux accompanied by a bold sell line:
“NHL Dynasties, Now Dinosaurs: Dominant Teams Have Become Extinct.”
The statement was meant to reflect hockey’s pending pendulum shift, one that would come to fruition with the Pittsburgh Penguins’ imminent demise. Trailing 3-1 in the first round of the playoffs to Washington, the Pens were done ‘fer and it seemed a certainty we’d have our fourth different champion in four years. This after Montreal, Edmonton and the Islanders owned the Stanley Cup for most of the 1970s and ‘80s.
As history revealed, at least in 1992, it was impossible to kill a walking bird.
A season in which frequent turmoil was the underlying theme for the Pens was punctuated by an NHL record-tying 11-game playoff winning streak en route to back-to-back crowns. The champs proved the disbelievers wrong, overcoming contract squabbles, critical injuries and, most significantly, the tragic death of their coach, to reach the pinnacle.
The secrets to their success? Dazzling depth, top-end talent and fierce desire.
“We had spectacular players,” said NBC analyst Pierre McGuire, an assistant coach with the ’91-92 club. “It’s scary in terms of what it would cost to keep that team together today.”
The depth chart is an honor roll, chock full of perennial all-stars, Hall of Famers, soon-to-be Hall of Famers and at least one should-be Hall of Famer. Start in the middle, with the best player in the league that season, Lemieux, followed by an in-his-prime Ron Francis. The checking-line/No. 3 center was Bryan Trottier. No, that’s not a typo. On right wing, 40-goal man Joey Mullen was followed by Mark Recchi (then, later in the season, Rick Tocchet), while sophomore Jaromir Jagr was flashing signs of his burgeoning brilliance amid a 32-goal year. Left winger Kevin Stevens recorded a team-best 54 goals and 254 penalty minutes, giving Pittsburgh the pre-eminent power forward in hockey.
The blueline corps wasn’t quite as star-studded, but featured the likes of Paul Coffey (until a February trade), Larry Murphy and Ulf and Kjell Samuelsson. And the last line of defense was money netminder Tom Barrasso.
Of the group, six – Lemieux, Francis, Trottier, Mullen, Coffey and Murphy – are already honored members of the Hall. Jagr will make it seven three years after he retires. Recchi could make it eight. Then there’s Barrasso, who on merit should be a definite No. 8, or 9, but remains on the outside looking in, largely due to his prickly relationship with the media.
Gritty role players such as Bob Errey, Phil Bourque and Gordie Roberts completed a stellar mix that was ultimately coached by legend Scotty Bowman.
Beyond the talent, the club was also laden with leadership.
“Mario was the captain, but the team probably had nine captains,” said Penguins vice-president Tom McMillan, who covered the team for the Post-Gazette in ’91-92. “And you had Bryan Trottier, who completely accepted a secondary role. Completely.”
Yet, despite its embarrassment of riches, this unit stumbled at times, on occasion badly. About three-quarters of the way through the season, there was still concern they might not even make the playoffs of the then 22-team league.
“After coming off the first Cup and with (coach) Bob Johnson’s illness, it seemed the whole season, we struggled along, plodded along,” Murphy said. “We never really got our footing.”
The tone for turmoil was set in training camp when it was learned Johnson had been diagnosed with brain cancer. ‘Badger’ was a universally beloved hockey man and news of his illness weighed heavily on the group. He eventually succumbed to his disease on Nov. 26, 1991.
“Everybody loved Bob,” Murphy said. “It wasn’t the best environment to go out there and play well. We tried to do the best under the circumstances.”
Simultaneously, GM Craig Patrick had to deal with some thorny contract issues, most notably Francis, who missed nearly the entire first month of the campaign while sorting out terms of his new pact.
Fortunately for Patrick, he didn’t have to turn far for a new coach; Bowman had been hired as director of player personnel in 1990 and agreed to step into the breach. Still, the transition from the affable Johnson to the my-way-or-the-highway Bowman proved challenging for some of the players – at first.
“Scotty didn’t really change anything,” Murphy said. “His approach was the same in terms of how we were going to play the game. Now, personality-wise, it was different. Bob Johnson was ‘Mr. Bright;’ ‘Great Day for Hockey.’ Scotty’s approach wasn’t as…enthusiastic. But Scotty was a great coach. We were fortunate someone like that could step in that circumstance. It wasn’t easy.”
It was downright dreary at first. Pittsburgh got off to a 5-6-3 start and by late February was still just .500, in a battle for the final Patrick Division playoff berth. Lemieux’s notorious bad back flared frequently, limiting him to 64 games. At times, it was so painful for Lemieux, he couldn’t bend over to tie his skates; instead the Penguins hired a youngster for the task. Remarkably, he still managed to win the Art Ross with 131 points.
Bowman, meanwhile, had some points to make of his own. In an attempt to rattle some cages at a Penguins practice just prior to Christmas, he delivered reassurance about his faith in the team – in the form of a veiled threat.
“He said, in the way only Scotty could say it, ‘Fellas, we’re going to win the Cup again, but some of you are playing as though you don’t belong here,’ ” McGuire recalled. “‘Don’t be the guy who, when we’re winning the Cup in June, is sitting on his couch watching us carry it around. Don’t be the guy who forces us to trade you out of town to help us get better.’ He got everybody’s attention.”
As Bowman was working his brilliance, Patrick was working the phone lines, masterminding a bold swap that catalyzed a character shift in the team’s dressing room. On Feb. 19, 1992, Patrick sent Mark Recchi, Brian Benning (acquired earlier that day from Los Angeles) and a first-round pick to Philadelphia for Tocchet, Kjell Samuelsson, backup goalie Ken Wregget and a third round pick.
Of the three newcomers, Tocchet had the biggest impact. He scored, he hit, he fought – he did whatever was necessary to win and inspired teammates to soar higher and strut with a little more swagger.
The Scarborough, Ont., native was at the heart of a pivotal moment when, on March 15 in Chicago, he took a puck to the face and suffered a broken jaw. Stunningly, he returned to the contest with a spaceman-style helmet, scored two goals and opened a bunch of eyes.
“That was a bellwether moment for our group,” McGuire said. “It showed you the value of Tocchet. It showed you the toughness of Tocchet and the guys started to say, ‘We can get this done.’ ”
Added Francis: “I wouldn’t expect anything less from him. That’s the way he always played. He was a fighter, and I don’t mean in the sense of dropping his gloves. He just never gave up.”
Following a 10-day players’ strike at the beginning of April, the Penguins secured third place in the division and drew the Capitals in Round 1; it was the start of a playoff trek that was a microcosm of their season.
They fell behind in the series 3-1 and went to Washington for Game 5. Looking like they were bound for extinction, Bowman decided it was time to alter strategy, eschewing the aggressive 2-1-2 forecheck for a passive 1-4 set-up. He floated the concept by Lemieux and asked his captain to sell it to some of the team’s leaders. The move paid off as the Pens became more responsible defensively and staged a dramatic comeback to win the series in seven.
Francis said Bowman also weaved wizardry in-game, managing the bench like a champion chess player.
“That was one of the most masterful coaching jobs I’ve ever seen in terms of getting the matchups he wanted,” Francis said.
Round 2 against the Rangers featured another memorable come-from-behind clash. Down 2-1 and having lost Lemieux to a broken wrist – courtesy of an Adam Graves slash – and Mullen to a knee injury in the same game, the Pens needed to swing momentum.
The Rangers, who’d finished first overall, looked poised to take a 3-1 series stranglehold back to Madison Square Garden, holding a 4-2 lead late in Game 4. But, after the Pens killed a five-minute major midway through the third period, Francis fired an innocent-looking 60-foot slap shot at Rangers stopper Mike Richter. It found the back of the net and turned the tide in the series and the playoffs. Troy Loney tied the game a minute later and Francis won it in overtime.
“I think if I take that shot 999 times, it maybe goes in once,” Francis said.
Game 4 against the Blueshirts was the first of 11 consecutive triumphs, as Pittsburgh steamrolled Boston in the conference final and Chicago in the Stanley Cup to give the Steel City its second NHL title.
Lemieux, who returned for Round 3 and finished with a league-best 16 goals and 34 points in 15 playoff games, won the Conn Smythe as playoff MVP. But Super Mario said at the time he believed it just as easily could have gone to a teammate.
“Tom Barrasso was just superb,” Lemieux said. “He was the key to us winning the Cup.”
While Barrasso and Lemieux shone during the post-season, it was the Penguins’ ability to win virtually any style of game that helped set them apart. They had it all.
“That team could seriously beat you any way,” McMillan said. “They could play a tough game, they could fight, they could play a defensive game and they could blow your doors off.”
And they could win back-to-back Stanley Cups, despite THN’s premature notice of extinction.
This is an excerpt from THN’s special issue, Greatest Teams of All-Time.