The Pittsburgh Penguins had won a breakthrough Stanley Cup in 1991, behind the extraordinary talents of Mario Lemieux. It was the first championship for a franchise that had never done anything of note. The 1992 Pittsburgh Penguins needed to validate that they were a legitimate contender. They did exactly that, although not without a fair share of adversity along the way.
Bob Johnson, the head coach of that ‘91 Cup winner suffered a brain aneurysm and passed away in the August before the 1991-92 season began. Johnson’s death cast immediate sadness over the season.
Lemieux dealt with back problems and missed 16 regular season games. His numbers were still good—44 goals/87 assists—but they left him a second-team All-Star rather than leading the way at center. And even a modest amount of missed time mattered in a division race where the New York Rangers and Washington Capitals had excellent teams.
But amidst the sadness and injuries, there was still plenty of talent. Pittsburgh hired Scotty Bowman, the architect of the most recent Montreal Canadiens Dynasty (1976-79) to come on and coach. On the ice, Kevin Stevens scored 54 goals, passes for 69 assists and was a 1st-team All-Star. Joe Mullen lit the lamp 42 times. Defenseman Larry Murphy had 56 assists. And the Pens had 30-plus goal scorers in Mark Recchi and a 19-year-old kid named Jaromir Jagr.
They also had veteran help that knew something about winning repeat Stanley Cups. Paul Coffey, a fine passing defenseman, had been part of the Gretzky Dynasty in Edmonton in the late 1980s. Bryan Trottier at center had been a leader on the New York Islanders teams that won four straight Cups from 1980-83. Both were on the last legs of their career, but their intangibles made them a perfect fit on these Pittsburgh Penguins.
It added up to the most prolific scoring offense in the NHL. The problem came on the defensive side were the Penguins were 20th in goals allowed—and keep in mind, the league only had 21 teams in 1992. Tom Barrasso could be up and down at goalie.
Pittsburgh got off to a nice start, with a record of 22-13-4 as the calendar flipped to the New Year, but the remainder of the regular season was marked by mediocrity. The Pens played sub-.500 hockey from January 1 to the start of the postseason. They finished third in the old Patrick Division, behind the Rangers and Capitals. And they had gone 2-5 against both of those rivals during the regular season.
The head-to-head record was a significant issue, because the NHL structured its playoffs with a strict division format. The top four teams from each of the four divisions qualified, they were seeded 1 thru 4 and played amongst themselves to settle an entrant to the conference finals. Pittsburgh would have to go through both Washington and New York in the first two rounds.
Washington was up first. The Caps finished the regular season 45-27-8. They could come close to matching the Penguins on offense, with Dino Ciccarrelli and Dmitri Khristich leading the second-best attack in the league. And while they weren’t great on defense, their 10th-place ranking in goals allowed was still considerably better than Pittsburgh.
The story of the first two games was Caps goalie Don Beaupre. The Pens fired 68 shots on goal in Games 1 & 2. They scored three times for their trouble. The losses of 3-1 and 6-2 sent them back home in a serious hole.
In the second period of Game 3, Pittsburgh got some momentum going. They broke through with four goals, including two from Lemieux. Mario completed the hat trick in the third period to secure the 6-4 win. But Ciccarrelli answered back in Game 4, scoring four goals. A 7-2 thrashing put Pittsburgh on the brink of elimination.
Back in the nation’s capital for Game 5, the Penguins trailed 2-1 in the second period and the bump-and-grind style of play was more conducive to the Capitals. But Pittsburgh found a way to beat Beaupre and pulled away with a 5-2 win. They again trailed in the second period of Game 6, this time down 4-2. Pittsburgh pulled even 4-4 and then Mario took over, scoring a pair of power-play goals to deliver the 6-4 win.
Now it was time for Game 7 and the Penguins finally had momentum. Once again, a defensive-oriented game wasn’t what they would have preferred. But Barrasso delivered and the 3-1 win was clinched on Mullen’s empty-net goal. The comeback was complete and the Rangers were up next.
New York had finished first in the Patrick Division. They were a top-five team both offensively and defensively. Mark Messier, who had championship credentials from Edmonton, had come to the Big Apple and won the MVP award in ‘92. They had a Hall of Fame defenseman in Brian Leetch and two more good scorers in Tony Amonte and Mike Gartner.
Barrasso picked up where he’d left off in Game 7 of the Caps series, stopping 35/37 shots in Madison Square Garden and leading a 4-2 win in the opener. He then held a 2-1 lead into the latter half of the third period in Game 2. But the Rangers were on the attack. They hit Barrasso with 39 shots total and the goalie broke late, giving up three late ones in a 4-2 loss.
That late cracking sent Barrasso into another slump and he played poorly in the two middle games in Pittsburgh. In each game, the Penguins had to rally from deficits of 2-0, 3-1 and 4-2 and each game went to overtime. They managed to get a split, winning Game 4 thanks to a hat trick from Ron Francis.
Game 5 was tied with 5:33 left when Jagr scored his second goal of the night to get a 3-2 win. Barrasso was back on his game and he kept it going at home in Game 6, stopping 33/34 shots. Pittsburgh clung to a 3-1 lead and then scored two empty-net goals to blow it open and seal another series.
The Penguins were only halfway through the postseason and they had faced their two biggest hurdles. And there was no letdown in sight—in fact, Pittsburgh would not lose another hockey game.
A conference finals rematch with the Boston Bruins was up next. Pittsburgh allowed 41 shots on goal in Game 1 and trailed 3-2. Shawn McEachern tied the game with 7:33 to play and Jagr won it in overtime. That was the last time the Bruins were competitive. Barrasso was completely locked in and only allowed four goals over the next three games. Stevens lit it up in Game 3 with four goals (none of them empty-net). Mario scored twice in Game 4, including an early short-handed goal to set the tone. The scores of the final three games were 5-2, 5-1 and 5-1. Pittsburgh was back in the Stanley Cup Finals.
Chicago was waiting in the Finals. The Blackhawks weren’t as deep as the Penguins, but they had talent—Jeremy Roenick was an elite scorer and Chris Chelios was a Hall of Fame defenseman. They had not one, but two all-time greats at the goalie spot with Ed Belfour starting and a mostly unknown Dominic Hasek in reserve. The Blackhawks didn’t go away easily—all four games were good and competitive.
In fact, Pittsburgh looked in serious trouble through much of Game 1, trailing 4-1. Then Lemieux got loose. Mario scored twice and the team scored four straight, the last game-winner coming from Lemieux with 0:13 left. Another Mario outburst, albeit considerably less dramatic won Game 2. He broke a 1-1 tie in the second period with two goals in less than three minutes.
Barrasso played his second straight outstanding game back in Chicago for Game 3, making a first period goal from Stevens stand up in a 1-0 win. The offenses got unleashed in Game 4. Barrasso gave up a hat trick to Dirk Graham in the first period. But the Penguins chased Belfour, nailing him for three goals in the first seven minutes. The game was 3-3 at the period and 4-4 going into the final 20 minutes.
Pittsburgh got to Hasek for two goals in the third period, from Murphy and Francis, and it stood up for a 6-5 win. There were heroes aplenty. Stevens and Jagr each scored double-digit goals for the playoffs. Barrasso, for all his ups and downs, had lifted his save percentage from 88.5% in the regular season to 90.7% in the playoffs. And no hero was bigger than Mario, who finished with 16 goals/18 assists and a Conn Smythe Trophy.
No one could know that there were some trying times ahead for the Penguin franchise. The only made it as far as the conference finals twice in the ensuing 15 years. They went through financial difficulties and threatened relocation. Mario came through one more time—he bought the team and turned it around. By 2008, Sidney Crosby and a new era of Penguins stars were picking up on the legacy that their boss had left behind in 1992.