Wednesday, May 25, 2011
No one else, after all, could keep up. The high-octane Penguins were the game's last truly dominant offensive team.
"I guess we were one-of-a-kind," Phil Bourque said.
Or, they were, at least, the last of their kind.
Matching the Penguins' offensive skill that season simply wasn't possible for other NHL teams. Thus, the game went a different direction, never again promoting or producing a comparable goal machine. Low-scoring styles and the dreaded "trap" strategy became trendy largely in an attempt to slow the high-flying Penguins.
"I do think it was the genesis of the 'trap' era," Bourque said. "We were the dominant team. It was either you be like us, or you come up with a system to beat us. Teams couldn't be like us. They didn't have Mario (Lemieux). They didn't have (Jaromir) Jagr, (Kevin) Stevens or (Larry) Murphy."
Or Ron Francis, Joey Mullen, Paul Coffey, Bryan Trottier or Mark Recchi, to name more of that team's current and future Hall-of-Famers. Bob Johnson, the team's iconic coach, instinctively understood how to push defense. But he permitted his squad's incomparable offense to lead the way.
"I'll never forget playing against them," said Tom Fitzgerald, now an assistant to Penguins general manager Ray Shero but a member of the New York Islanders in 1991. "They were just much different than any other team. It wasn't that you might lose to them that scared you. You just didn't want to be embarrassed by them.
"They were that good. And it honestly got to the point where, especially with Mario, clutching and grabbing was literally the only way you could stop them."
The Penguins were as resilient as they were talented. They lost the first game in all four of their playoff series that spring, only to roar back each time. In their 16 victories, they scored at least four goals 14 times.
Offense alone wasn't supposed to win so many games in the NHL.
"It didn't seem like the NHL to me," said Scott Young, a right wing with the Penguins who later blossomed into a 40-goal scorer in St. Louis. "It was amazing to me. I couldn't believe it. I couldn't believe how many goals we would get."
It was the team's hard work, Jaromir Jagr said, that beautifully complemented its outrageous talent.
"When I think about those years," Jagr said recently, "I don't think you could see it on another team before. (The hard work) made the Pittsburgh Penguins so good. Plus, they had Mario."
Lemieux, in one of his many remarkable comebacks, overcame back surgery to score 16 goals and 44 points in 23 playoff games that spring. Stevens had 17 goals. The Penguins had eight goals in the Cup clincher at Minnesota, putting away the North Stars with their customary glitz.
"I don't know how much they worried about defense, but it didn't matter," Fitzgerald said. "They could all score and could all embarrass you. And Mario was driving the bus. They were the Harlem Globetrotters. The teams today are so evenly matched; the '91 Penguins were so talented, it wasn't fair."
Although the Penguins will always be remembered for their colorful offense, it isn't fair to suggest that defense and goaltending didn't play a role in their success.
Tom Barrasso was one of the great goaltenders of his time, and Ulf Samuelsson was perhaps the league's most feared defender.
"That team had everything," Samuelsson said. "There was just so much offense, we didn't really need to practice that. And our defense was better than people think."
What truly made the Penguins memorable was not just their ability to score in bunches but also their unique personalities. Their roster played out like a movie script.
Lemieux was the unquestioned leader, the game's greatest player, the distinguished king. Jagr was the prince, 19 and filled with potential and moments of greatness. Stevens and his bold predictions, Samuelsson and his cult following, and the determination of a guy who is still playing today (Recchi) made the Penguins a team that so many could identify with.
Even the role players, guys like Bourque, Bob Errey and Troy Loney, had a following.
"It takes everyone to win a Stanley Cup," Bourque said. "And every single player on that team contributed at some point."
Jagr recently called playing with the Penguins of the early 90s the best time of his life.
He isn't the only one who feels that way.
"Cell phones weren't really around back then but I had to find a phone after we won the Cup," Bourque said. "I had to call some loved ones. It was a special time, a special team."
And one that will never be duplicated.