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Bob Grove: 12/31/78 The Greatest Penguins Comeback

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Four decades and two Detroit hockey palaces ago, the Penguins paid a visit to the Motor City on a Sunday New Year’s Eve and pulled off arguably the greatest regular season comeback in franchise history. So with the Pens making their first appearance at Little Caesar’s Arena in Detroit tonight, what better time to look back?

Unfortunately, this game won’t bring back fond memories for Jim Rutherford.

The Penguins began a home-and-home with the Norris Division rival Red Wings on Dec. 30, 1978, at the Civic Arena, earning a 3-1 victory thanks in part to defenseman and current Anaheim coach Randy Carlyle. Carlyle had been out of the lineup for nine games with a bruised ankle but returned that night to set up a Rod Schutt goal in the first period and deliver the game-winner late in the second.

The teams headed for Greater Pittsburgh Airport after the game, which had begun at the usual 8:05 p.m. time, but the airport was fogged in. So both teams took buses to Detroit the next morning for a 7:05 start at the Olympia on New Year’s Eve.

Detroit took a 2-0 first period lead on goals in the opening 15 minutes by Bill Lochead and Dale McCourt, but they lost starting goaltender Rogie Vachon, who was cut for a dozen stitches by a Peter Lee slap shot eight minutes into the game.

GMJR!

On came Rutherford, the former Penguins’ goaltender.

The Wings scored twice in 2:27 in the second period on goals by Robert Plumb, his third and final NHL goal, and Errol Thompson to take a 4-0 lead. Pittsburgh’s Peter Mahovlich got one back with 2:12 left in the second, finishing off a three-on-two break, and that seemed to energize Pittsburgh, which outshot the Wings, 13-5, over the final 20 minutes.

Injured? You need a lawyer. Call Joshua R. Lamm.

The game remained 4-1 until there were fewer than eight and a half minutes left. A Lee slap shot beat Rutherford at 11:35 to make it 4-2, and it was a pass to the front of the net by Lee that touched off a goal-mouth scramble that ended at 17:06 with Greg Malone cutting the lead to 4-3. And just 1:11 later, with 1:43 to play, Gregg Sheppard scored on the rebound of a Tom Bladon shot to tie the game.

The Pens lept off the bench to congratulate Sheppard.

Comeback Complete

Lee, who finished with a game-high six shots and three points, fired a shot off the goal post in the closing seconds that bounded off Rutherford and into the crease. Carlyle knocked it home with seven seconds left for an improbable 5-4 victory.

Greg Millen tied a team record by earning his sixth straight victory in goal that night, and the win gave the Penguins 22 points in December – the best December in team history at that point.

Pittsburgh has rallied from four goals down to win several regular season games, including Paul Coffey’s 1987 debut at home against Quebec, Sidney Crosby’s first NHL victory in 2005 at home against the Atlanta Thrashers and a 1991 game on Long Island in which Phil Bourque delivered the overtime winner. But to endure a difficult travel itinerary to win in regulation on the road while playing on consecutive nights after trailing by three with less than nine minutes left. . . That was indeed something special.

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The unofficial historian of the Pittsburgh Penguins and columnist here at Pittsburgh Hockey Now. If you’re not following him on Twitter @bobgrove91, you’re missing out on a world of insights, stats and trivia.

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