The 1991 Pittsburgh Penguins were a team that came mostly out of nowhere. Even though Mario Lemieux was a rising star who won the MVP award in 1988 and finished in the top five each of the following two years, Lemieux only played 26 regular season games. The Penguins had missed the playoffs seven of the previous eight years. But it all came together at the right time in 1991.
Mark Recchi and Kevin Stevens were each 40-goal scorers, while center John Cullen and defenseman Paul Coffey were skilled at moving the puck. Another contributor who would eventually be a star was 18-year-old Jaromir Jagr, and everything added up to Pittsburgh having the second-best offense in the NHL.
Defense was problematic and Pittsburgh did not have a dominant regular season, but the 41-33-6 record was still good enough to win a balanced Patrick Division, have the third-best record in the Wales Conference (the East), and seventh best in the league overall.
The playoff run nearly ended before it began when the Penguins fell behind the New Jersey Devils three games to two, before a two-goal game from Stevens saved Game 6 and Pittsburgh then won a 4-0 shutout in the decisive game.
Pittsburgh lost the opener of the second round to the Washington Capitals and went to overtime in Game 2. It was defenseman Paul Coffey who ended up as the hero for the Pens, dishing four assists in a 7-6 win that turned the series around. Pittsburgh won the next three games and moved on to the conference finals.
The Boston Bruins had the best record in the NHL for the second straight season, and were looking to finally turn those President’s Trophies into Stanley Cups. The Bruins won the first two games of the conference finals and seemed in command. Then, when it was least expected, the suspect Pittsburgh defense came up big.
Tom Barrasso was in goal, and during the regular season he finished with a 3.59 Goals Against Average. The playoffs were a different story, as the 25-year-old came up clutch and ended with 2.60 GAA. Never was that more apparent or more important than Games 3 & 4 of the conference finals. Barrasso saved 56 of 58 shots in those two games, the Penguins won both and the tide had turned. The offense unloaded for 12 goals in Games 5 & 6 and Pittsburgh won the series in six games.
The breaks of the NHL playoffs worked in Pittsburgh’s favor at the 1991 Stanley Cup Finals. In spite of the Campbell Conference (the West) being stacked with better regular season teams than the East, it was that side of the bracket that turned chaotic. The Minnesota North Stars were the West’s seventh-best team and worse than every playoff team in the Wales Conference, but somehow played their way into the Finals.
Minnesota might have been outclassed, but Pittsburgh continued their pattern of making sure they did it the hard way. The Pens lost two of the first three games, but got wins of 5-3 and 6-4 to get control and then went up to the Twin Cities and hung an 8-0 rout on the North Stars, bringing the Stanley Cup to the Steel City.
Lemieux might not have been the regular season hero, but he knew the postseason, scoring 16 goals and distributing 28 assists, en route to the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP. The 1991 Pittsburgh Penguins brought their home city its first Stanley Cup.