Today we introduce you to a peculiar team that nearly missed the cut, but after further evaluation of their sheer talent, we had to include them in our list. That team is the 1991-1992 Pittsburgh Penguins.
The 1990-1991 season was a great one for the Pittsburgh Penguins. The Penguins won the Patrick Division and went on to win their first Stanley Cup, defeating the Minnesota North Stars in the Stanley Cup Finals. However, tragedy struck the Penguins as they lost head coach Bob Johnson to cancer. Hall of Fame coach Scotty Bowman took over to attempt a repeat with this team. However, the season did not start so smoothly for this Penguins team. 15 games into the season and the Penguins a .500 team, at 6-6-3. However, any team led by Mario Lemieux couldn’t be kept down for too long. The Penguins managed to push to the All Star break at 24-16-5, which kept them in the playoff race. The streak would not last as the Penguins lost Lemieux to injury for a couple of weeks at the end of January and early February, and went just 1-4-1 in his absence to bring their record to 26-23-6. Lemieux returned in the middle of February and the Penguins went on a run to end the season, going 13-8-3 to finish at 39-32-9 for 87 points. The Penguins finished third in the Patrick Division, as both the Rangers and Capitals had strong seasons to finish 1st and 2nd in the division. However, the Penguins were the defending champs and they were loaded from top to bottom in skill.
Statistically, the Penguins were extremely impressive offensively, not so much defensively. However, their offensive prowess allows us to overlook their defensive lacking to a certain degree. The Penguins averaged an incredible 4.29 goals per game to lead the league. The Penguins had 3 players score 42 or more goals, 5 different players score 32 of more goals, and an amazing 7 players score 21 goals or more. Finally, 13 different players tallied 10 or more times for the Penguins, giving them one of the deepest offensive attacks in NHL history. However, not only did they have depth scoring, but they had top flight scoring. The Penguins had 3 players finish in the top 20 in NHL scoring as well as having the #1 and #2 scorers in the NHL. Mario Lemieux led the league with 131 points despite playing just 64 games and teammate Kevin Stevens finished 2nd in the NHL in goals with 54 and 2nd in points with 123. This may be one of the greatest offenses in NHL history and it allows us to overlook their defense a bit. However, we still have to mention the defense. The Penguins allowed an abysmal 3.85 goals per game, which was 3rd worst in the NHL. This really dragged down the ranking of this team in our list more so than the regular season record. With skilled defensemen such as Paul Coffey, Larry Murphy, and Ulf Samuelsson, and Tom Barrasso (a member of the 350 win club for goalies) in net, this team could have been better defensively. However, when a team has Mario Lemieux, Kevin Stevens, Joe Mullen, Mark Recchi, Jaromir Jagr (albeit a 19 year old Jagr), Paul Coffey, Ron Francis, Larry Murphy, and Bryan Trottier, we can overlook the defense. This team made this list on talent alone as 8 of those 9 players mentioned above either are in the Hall of Fame or will be in the Hall of Fame.
In the playoffs, this team started slow just like in the regular season. The first round had the Penguins traveling to Washington D.C. for a date with the Capitals. The Capitals, as mentioned before, had a very strong season, finishing with 98 points and the 2nd best record in the NHL. The Capitals were led by a variety of players, including Michael Pivonka (23-57-80), Dale Hunter (28-50-78), Dino Ciccarelli (38-38-76), Peter Bondra (28-28-56), and Kevin Hatcher (17-37-54). While the Capitals lacked the superstar scoring that the Penguins had, they still had the incredible depth scoring as the Capitals had 7 20 goal scorers and 14 10 goal scorers. Another thing working against the Penguins was the fact that the Capitals owned them in the regular season, going 5-2 against the Penguins and absolutely thrashing them in some games. The matchups weren’t even close, as Washington had wins of 8-0, 6-2, and 7-2. Overall, the Capitals outscored the Penguins 35-21 in their 7 matchups. Their first round matchup was no different at the start. The Capitals jumped all over the Penguins early, taking the first two games in Washington by a combined score of 9-3. Heading back to Pittsburgh, the Penguins managed to grab Game 3 in a 6-4 decision, but were walloped 7-2 in Game 4. Heading to Washington, the Penguins were battered and on the brink. Their vaunted offense which averaged over 4 goals a game during the regular season was held to under 3 goals a game through the first 4 games. Their defense was in even worse shape as the Capitals ahd lit them up for 20 goals in the 4 games and heading back to Washington things didn’t look good. However, the Stanley Cup champion experience from the previous years as well as the championship experience brought in by Scotty Bowman allowed this team to turn it around. Well, it also helps to have a guy named Mario Lemieux playing for you. After missing Game 1, Lemieux posted a 2 assist game in Game 2, but it was not enough to lead the team to victory. So Lemieux decided to step it up and pour in 3 goals and 3 assists in game 3, accounting for all 6 goals scored by the Penguins. Game 4 saw Lemieux tally another goal, but it was in vain. Lemieux took his game to another level in Games 5, 6, and 7, recording 8 points, including a 2 goal, 3 assist performance in game 6 that saw the Penguins win a 6-4 shootout. The defense and play of Tom Barrasso also improved vastly. After giving up 31 or more shots in each of the first 4 games, the Penguins held the Capitals under 30 shots in Games 5, 6, and 7. However, the real story here was Mario Lemieux as he scored an incredibly 16 points in just 6 games played in the series. Lemieux put this team on his back and carried them to a 2nd round matchup with the NHL leading New York Rangers.
The Rangers were led by Hart Trophy winner Mark Messier, Norris Trophy winner Brian Leetch, and 40 goal scorer Mike Gartner. The Rangers, like the Capitals, enjoyed a lot of success against the Penguins, going 5-2, including a 7-1 win in the last game of the regular season. However, the Penguins were determined not to have a repeat of the previous series, as they withstood New York’s offensive barrage to steal a 4-2 win in New York to open the series. However, Game 2 saw the series take a major turn for the worse as Adam Graves broke Mario Lemieux’s wrist, forcing him out of the series. The Rangers took Games 2 and 3, and suddenly things were not looking good for the defending Stanley Cup Champions. Game 4 was crucial and proved to be the turning point in the series. Ron Francis took over the game, scoring a hat trick for the Penguins and leading them to a 5-4 OT win. Game 5 was 19 year old sophomore Jaromir Jagr’s turn as he tallied twice to lead the Penguins to a 3-2 win. In the clincher, Mario Lemieux returned, and Ron Francis and Rick Tocchet combined for 3 goals and 3 assists to lead the Penguins to a 5-1 win and put them back in the Conference Finals, winning the last 3 games without their star Mario Lemieux.
The Conference Finals brought a showdown with the Boston Bruins, who were led by Ray Bourque both offensively and defensively. The Bruins and Penguins only met 3 times in the regular season, going 1-1-1 in the matchups, but the key here was that the Penguins would be without Mario Lemieux for at least the start of the series. However, the Penguins were in full flight and after stealing game 1 in OT, they never looked back. The Penguins took games 2 and 3 by a combined 10-3 score and got the boost of Mario Lemieux returning in Game 2. Lemieux picked up right where he left off, recording 8 points in the final 3 games to lead the Penguins back to the Stanley Cup Finals. The Penguins were rolling, having won 7 games in a row and they were walking in to the Stanley Cup Finals on a tear. Their opponent? The Chicago Blackhawks, winners of an NHL record 11 games in a row coming in to the series.
The Blackhawks were led by Jeremy Roenick (53-50-103) up front and Chris Chelios (9-47-56) on the back end. However, the real strength of this team was their goaltending as they had future Hall of Famer Ed Belfour starting, and “youngster” Dominik Hasek (fun fact, Hasek was in his 2nd season, but was actually a year older than Belfour). Belfour brought his game to another level in the playoffs, posting a 2.47 GAA and .902 SV%. After dropping Games 2 and 3 to St. Louis in the first round to fall behind 2-1 in the series, the Blackhawks rattled off 3 wins to win that series, then swept Detroit in the Conference Semifinals and Edmonton in the Conference Finals to record an incredible 11 consecutive playoff wins. During that streak, the Blackhawks outscored their opponents 45-22. This was a matchup of the two hottest teams in the postseason, both carrying impressive winning streaks, but only one could prevail. The Blackhawks jumped on the Penguins early, grabbing an early 4-1 lead in Game 1. However, the one thing the Blackhawks didn’t have was Le Magnefique, or Mario Lemieux as he is known to the commoners. Lemieux scored twice to lead the Penguins to a 5-4 comeback win in Game 1. That comeback seemed to break the back of the Blackhawks as they never looked the same in the series. This was only the 2nd loss in the playoffs for Ed Belfour and it was the most goals he had given up in a game in the playoffs thus far. Game 2 saw Mario continue to be Mario as he scored another 2 goals to lead the Penguins to a 2-0 series lead. Game 3 was the first game in Chicago and the Blackhawks finally played a game at their tempo. The Blackhawks were the 2nd best defensive team during the regular season and Game 3 was a defensive struggle. However, Kevin Stevens tallied the lone goal in the game and the Penguins took Game 3 1-0 to put the Blackhawks on the brink. Game 4 was back to the Penguins pace as the game quickly turned in to a shootout. Dirk Graham recorded a hat trick for the Blackhawks, but sadly, that was not enough as Super Mario, Kevin Stevens, and Rick Tocchet all recorded 3 points to lead the Penguins to a 6-5 win, clinching back to back Stanley Cups. Lemieux won the Conn Smythe trophy, recording 16 goals, 18 assists, and 34 points in just 15 games played in the postseason. In fact, Lemieux was held pointless just 2 times during the postseason, one being the game where he was injured and the other being the 1-0 decision in Game 3 of the Finals. Lemieux recorded 2 points or more in 11 of his 15 games and truly established himself as the premier player in the game that season. The 1991-1992 regular season marked the first time that Wayne Gretzky finished outside of the top 2 in NHL scoring and Mario could now make a significant claim to the being the best player in the game.
The Penguins are on this list despite their sub-.500 road record, their bottom 3 defense, and their lackadaisical penalty killing because of the talent and offensive depth that they had. I also have to kick in what I’m going to call the “Mario Lemieux factor” as this man could really elevate his team to another level whenever he wanted to. Sure their record and defense don’t indicate it, but if this team was tossed in a 7 game series with any other team in the history of the hockey, you have to like their chances because of Mario Lemieux.