By Shelly Anderson, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Wednesday, May 25, 2011
The Penguins lifted the Stanley Cup for the first time 20 years ago today. Many on that 1991 championship team are still involved in hockey, including Mark Recchi, who is chasing another Cup as a 43-year-old winger for Boston in the Eastern Conference final.
The Penguins needed seven games to get past New Jersey in the first round of the 1991 playoffs, then won four in a row against Washington after dropping Game 1 in the second round. In the Wales Conference final, they lost the first two games against Boston before winning four in a row to reach the Stanley Cup final. Minnesota -- the North Stars, not the Wild -- took a 2-1 series lead before the Penguins won three in a row, punctuating their playoff ride with an 8-0 win in Game 6.
The Penguins have won two subsequent Cups, in 1992 and 2009, but 20 years of hindsight has allowed those on the '90-91 squad to fully appreciate the feat.
"It's like the average person who runs a marathon and puts in their time -- you just kind of put one foot ahead of the other. Later, you reflect on what it took to accomplish what you did," said Gordie Roberts, a defenseman on the '91 Cup club.
With that type of reflection in mind, several members of that team answered six questions about key aspects of the '90-91 season and postseason.
Question: What's the best thing about winning the Stanley Cup, and what's your reaction each year when teams raise it?
G Frank Pietrangelo: I think all of us grow up with the intention of one day winning the Stanley Cup. It's a dream, whether you're on the ice or in the street. Over time you see how difficult it is to win the thing.
D Gordie Roberts: It's probably just being in the right place, right time to capture the moment.
F Joe Mullen: It's what you play for. It's the ultimate goal every year. When you finally achieve that, there's no better feeling in the world than to be able to skate around the ice with that Cup with your teammates.
D Jim Paek: It seems like yesterday. ... Your heart is always where you won your Cups. To win it in Pittsburgh ... I can't believe it's 20 years.
Assistant coach Barry Smith: The first one was probably most shocking because we were fighting just to get into the playoffs. We just took off in the playoffs and just kept improving. Each series had a different personality, but the team just stuck together and got better. Before the third period [in the clinching game] we were up 6-1 or 6-0 you didn't know how to react. Oh my God, can they score seven goals and beat us? It's not over. But what do you say between period?. You can't start celebrating. You just had to play a period.
F Jay Caufield: The best thing about it was being part of a team where a number of the guys are still close friends, and realizing that you've been a part of something. Every year you see the people who win it and you know what a special time it is for the players and management. You flash back.
D Grant Jennings: We were playing road hockey at 5, 6, 7 years old, and we used to watch it in Canada on TV, raising the Cup, so most of us always dreamed about doing it. Reality sets in you're about 15, 16, and there's a way of weeding out. The best thing about it was fulfilling a childhood dream that most of us shared. Now it's almost a form of jealousy, but in a positive way. I know that 20-some young men are going to get to experience that feeling.
Question: "Badger" Bob Johnson led the team to the Cup in his only season coaching the Penguins. He died of brain cancer Nov. 26, 1991 at age 60 and left behind the uplifting catchphrase, "It's a great day for hockey.". What was the biggest influence Johnson had on you, or what was your favorite moment that involved him?
Pietrangelo: Just a legend, legend, legend. He was a positive person, somebody who had a great outlook on life. The biggest thing about Bob was his desire to get to know people personally. I played for a lot of different people in a lot of different leagues. Most of them were all about hockey. Bob was different. He knew all about your family life, your children. The last time I talked to Bob Johnson was when we went to see him in Colorado after he had brain surgery. He looked at me and asked me about my daughter. [Paige is a defenseman at Robert Morris now.]
Paek: I'm sad to say that I only knew him for a very short time. I was up for 13 games, then I was sent to the national team. So I missed a lot of that season with him. The impact he made on me through training camp then 13 games and playoff run, the impact as a hockey player and as a person, was tremendous. All the stories he told you, it's just ingrained in your mind. He's the one who gave me the opportunity to play in the NHL. I still remember the Washington series. People get hurt. He always told me that you never know when you might get your chance. All of a sudden I'm the sixth defenseman. [with three hurt] and I played the first game against Washington) He just threw me in the fire. He had the confidence in me to play, and that gave me the confidence in myself.
Smith: There wasn't one favorite moment. It was just fun being around him. But the things that rubs off is he was so positive. He used to talk in golf terms as well. You appreciate him for the love of the game. He had friends in all different dimensions in life and just a really good family and a wonderful person.
D Larry Murphy: He was such a sweet guy, and at the same time not playing to your ability was not acceptable. He was very demanding, but in such a pleasant way. And he was such an optimist.
Jennings: With Badger, when we came [in a trade] from Hartford, he would have our pregame meeting. He had these pucks with guys' faces on them as he was diagramming plays. He was always nice and positive. I wasn't the best practice player, but he would come up to me after a game or practice and say, 'Jenner, are you going to get on the bike today?' 'No.' He would come in the weight room with me and get on the bike with me just so I would get in shape. When he was ill in Colorado, we made a video for him. When I got on the mike, I said, 'I'm practicing as hard as ever.'
F Barry Pederson: The things I admired the most with him were his passion, his energy, love of the game and his teaching ability. He was more like a professor at school. He loved what he was doing.
Question: On March 4, general manager Craig Patrick swung perhaps the biggest trade in team history, acquiring center Ron Francis and defensemen Ulf Samuelsson and Grant Jennings from Hartford for center John Cullen, winger Jeff Parker and defenseman Zarley Zalapski. How did that deadline trade most change the team?
Paek: You added depth. You had over a 100-point man in Ron Francis and power play, penalty killing. He's the No. 1 guy on any other team. The leadership of all three guys. Ulffie was just a workhorse. Just unreal. You see that, you're going to follow suit. Grant could do it all. The addition of those three, you saw the outcome. Craig did a great job of acquiring those three guys.
Pietrangelo: That was a big part of our success. Obviously, Ronnie's a Hall of Famer -- his hockey skills speak for themselves -- but his leadership skills, too. We all know what Ulffie did, shut down teams and got under guys' skins. And Grant as well. He was, like myself, depth that we wouldn't have won the Stanley Cup without. I don't think we would have won the Cup without that trade.
Roberts: That was probably one of the greatest trades ever. I've been a pro scout a long time. Two trades made a big difference – that one and the one the next year when Rick Tocchet came in. Craig Patrick looked at what the team needed to win a Cup both years and then made the moves. It's an obvious given that Ron Francis supported Mario Lemieux, especially wen Mario had the back issues and Ronnie could step in as the top center. And Ulf had the warrior mentality, the Jack Lambert style that Pittsburgh loved.
Mullen: That was the most important impact move that year, to get players like that. We gave up a lot of good players, but it was what we got in return -- Ronnie, the leadership, Ulffie the same way, Grant Jennings a real good role player.
Caufield: Losing Johnny Cullen was a big thing. Initially, the reaction was that you're losing a great friend and a guy who was making so much happen, but then you realize what was coming into your locker room. I don't want to slight what John Cullen did, but you knew what value came back.
Pederson: They just brought in experience. These were guys who had been successful with other teams. They were warriors. They could play any type of game that you wanted to play. They were leaders on their team. That was the crowning jewel.
Question: Where do these rank among big plays you have witnessed – backup goaltender Frank Pietrangelo's lunging glove save on New Jersey's Peter Stastny in a 4-3 win in Game 6 with the Penguins trailing the opening-round series, 3-2, and facing elimination; and Mario Lemieux's spectacular goal in Game 2 of the final when he split Minnesota defensemen Neil Wilkinson and Shawn Chambers, leaving Chambers on the ice, and slipped the puck around goaltender Jon Casey's right leg for a 3-1 lead in what ended up a 4-1 win?
Trottier: When Frankie stole that puck from Peter Stastny, that's embedded in my brain forever. To be on the team and have it turn out to be such a deciding save. We were in a seventh game without Mario. That save transcended us to another level, like a springboard. It's such a defining moment for his career, too. The goal, I can't see that enough. He just looked like he found another gear at the right time. You could just see the panic on the defensemen's faces. I remember the play that [Phil Bourque] made [in his own end] and Mario just shot out of a cannon. And the move. He couldn't have gone the other way. It's another highlight. It's the greatest forum you could have.
Roberts: I would put those two in the top two, and the third one was the team coming down from 3-1 against Washington in the second round the next year, turning a negative into a positive and going on to repeat.
Smith: Don't forget about Mario's one-on-one move against Ray Bourque. If we had "SportsCenter" back then, they would have been the play of the night. Pietrangelo's save saved the game, and it took pressure off of Barrasso and got us to the next series.
Murphy: As special as Mario's goal was, Pietrangelo's save was a defining moment in the playoffs.
Mullen: I think Frankie's play was huge because if he doesn't make that save, we don't go on. That's got to be the biggest play for me that year in the playoffs. That's the first round If he doesn't make that save, we're going home. Mario's goal, that's a highlight reel goal, but it's the way he did things and the timing of things. That's Mario Lemieux.
Caufield: When you think of that year, you think of those two moments. Everybody will flash back to those two plays. If you don't have the save, you don't get to Mario's goal. They are two unbelievable plays. What a great thing for Frank Pietrangelo to go in and make a play like that. The timing of Mario doing that, he had a knack for doing things when needed
Question: After the Penguins lost the first two games against Boston, winger Kevin Stevens guaranteed his club would come back to win that second-round series. What do you think of Stevens' bold prediction?
Pietrangelo: Pretty ballsy, that's for sure. We lost both games. He made no bones about it. He's from Boston, and we had a lot of Boston guys on the team. For him to come straight out and say we're going to win this thing ... he felt it and believed it, and I think we all did. The inner belief has got to be there.
Trottier: Even at the time we thought it was really ballsy. Holy cow, here's a guy who's putting it out on the line. He believes. He was one of those guys that said it out loud. A lot of us thought it, but Kevin would say it. It wasn't just a declaration, but it was a defining declaration. That was really good for our team to hear at a really important time in the payoffs. He just did it because that's who he was and he believed it. You know what Kevin? We believe it, too. He was probably playing the best hockey of his career, and he just poured it on after that. He drove the net, he carried the mail, he scored some big goals. It was just so genius and so Kevin.
Roberts: I'd have to say that he was a hockey prophet. I've been studying Isaiah lately. He's the Isaiah of hockey in 1991.
Smith: I enjoyed him as a player and as a character.
Jennings: We all knew we were good enough. It was a reinforcement for him to say it. I ended up scoring a game-winning goal in one of the games. It wasn't like a jinx or anything. We took it as, 'Yeah, let's do this.'
Pederson: At that time, at that point in his career, Kevin was taking his game to the next level. He was one of the top guns becoming one of the big power forwards. He was able to create a lot of space for Mario and others up front. Boston was his hometown. It meant a lot to him. He was making a statement, on and off the ice. I thought that was a coming-out time for him. It could have backfired, but he was willing to put in on the line.
Question: What was Pittsburgh like as a hockey town?
Trottier: Pittsburgh, to me, has always been a really good hockey city. In the late '70s when I broke into the league, they had some really good, consistent players, but not a lot of playoff success. They went to the bottom of the league, then Mario comes in and revitalizes the city. When we got into the playoffs and went on a run, everywhere you drove there were hockey signs. Every restaurant. People's yards. Every round, it was just more the talk of the town. It was kind of a hot thing. There were a lot of fun things going on around it. I call it the tidal wave of Penguinmania. This town knows how to celebrate a championship. That was really a fun time for me at a time when I didn't think I would experience that again. It might have died a little bit before Sidney [Crosby] came, but now it's hit another level. You have names like [Jaromir] Jagr, Barrasso, Francis, and kids are like, 'Who's that?' It's another generation.
Mullen: I think it was growing as a hockey town. For us to go that far, that growth spurt took a big leap because we took a big leap. We barely got in the playoffs. To be able to go on to the finals and win it was huge step.
Paek: It was the best. I absolutely loved it there. It's a big city with a small-town mentality. I still go back after 20 years and they still say, 'Hey champ, congratulations.' They remember. That's just an honor to be a part of that. The fans just rallied behind that team. They won't change. Pittsburghers don't change. From now, from back then, they're great fans and really support their team. Now they have to cheer a little louder in that big new building. We would have been spoiled if we had that back then.
Murphy: It felt like a hockey city. I got there in December [in a trade from Minnesota]. There was excitement in the building. The city was behind the team. One event that stands out was when we came back from Minnesota after we won the Cup, all the fans came to the airport.
Caufield: I think it's an unbelievable place to play sports in general. It's, if not the best, one of the best. They didn't make the playoffs the year before. Going back to the '88-89 season, they got on a little bit of run and lost to Philly. To build only two years later to winning the Stanley Cup, it was great to be part of that.
Pederson: I think it's a great hockey town, especially during Mario's years there and now with [Sidney] Crosby it's continued. During the '90-91 year, my career was winding down. My wife and I had come in from Vancouver. I knew downtown a little bit. Not one of the great downtowns. What we didn't know about was the 'burbs. They were phenomenal. It combined the east coast passion for sports and the warmness of the midwest. I thought it made the experience so enjoyable. I was very, very impressed with the way they got behind their team.
Jennings: Coming from Hartford, it wasn't the biggest hockey town or hockey market., so when we came here and started winning, we would go to a restaurant after a game or anywhere and the people were just looking. I think they were kind of starved for something like that. The guys who were traded were staying in an apartment-style hotel. We would go shopping together for groceries at 'Giant Iggle.' People all knew who we were. When we came back from Minnesota [with the Cup] at the airport, it was unbelievable. I still come back there and if I walk down into the stands people will yell my name or tell me to get out on the ice. That was a great place to win.
F Randy Gilhen: I thought Pittsburgh had great fans. With Mario there, people flocked to games. I find Pittsburgh to be a very passionate sports city.