The beauty of sports is the unpredictable nature of human competition. There isn’t a script, and neither participant is constrained by “should,” but instead, each is motivated by “could.” The resulting emotion for players and fans can create heart-pounding drama, and sometimes heart-stopping moments on which everything hinges. The Pittsburgh Penguins history is full of those pressurized moments when everyone reached the edge of their seat, gripped their chair tighter, and then exhaled the stress of passion.
Not every heart-stopper is good. At least a pair of the top Penguins heart-stopping moments resulted in a deflating exhale, rather than an exalting roar. For those bad memories, we apologize. For good memories, please enjoy.
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Top 5 Pittsburgh Penguins Heart-stopping Moments
5. Marian Hossa’s fluttering backhand
Oh, what could have been. The young Pittsburgh Penguins arrived. In 2006-07, the Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin-led Penguins made the playoffs in their first attempt. The grizzled veteran Ottawa Senators schooled them and sent the kids home from school in Round One. However, in 2007-08, GM Ray Shero pulled off a last-minute coup to snatch All-Star winger Marian Hossa off the trade market, and the Penguins were on a mission.
The Penguins steamrolled through the Eastern Conference but had a date with the Detroit Red Wings. Detroit had the purest championship caliber. They had experience and talent. They were physical and skilled. Ten years ago, and six years earlier, many of the same players hoisted their first Stanley Cup.
Detroit had a chance to win the Cup in Game 6 in Pittsburgh. Despite heroic efforts from several Penguins and defenseman Brooks Orpik’s seek and destroy mission, Detroit led, 3-1 in the third period, and that is when the Penguins desperation and fury reached its crescendo.
The Penguins mounted a suffocating comeback. They swarmed the puck and Detroit in the final minutes. Hossa scored with 90 seconds remaining, to shrink the gap to one goal. One more goal and the Penguins would force OT and hopefully Game 7 for the Stanley Cup. One. More. Goal.
The Penguins peppered Detroit goalie Chris Osgood with scoring chances and crashed the crease with everything they had. As the final seconds poured off of the Civic Arena scoreboard, the puck was again on Marian Hossa’s stick, just feet from the goal as Osgood was sprawled on the ice. 4…3…2…Hossa’s backhand flew toward the post, end over end…17,132 fans who shook the Civic Arena to its core fell silent….1…the puck fluttered just wide…0…Detroit won.
4. Puck trickling behind Murray in Gm 6, 2017 Stanley Cup Final
You’ll have a hard time making me feel bad for Nashville. But that’s another story. Nashville rolled hundreds of new speakers for the Stanley Cup Final to pound the sound at their opponent. There were rumors of the ice being intentionally bad as to negate the Pittsburgh Penguins speed advantage. This reporter witnessed Bridgestone Arena staff brag they took the Penguins pucks before the morning skate, so the Penguins would only have a few.
The Penguins were defending Stanley Cup champions, and they were tired. The Washington Capitals pounded on them in Round Two. Nashville was attempting to do the same in the SCF. The Penguins mustered all of the energy and courage they had to win a couple of games which they shouldn’t have, including Game 1, when Nashville held the Penguins without a shot for 37 minutes.
How much more energy did the Penguins have? The Penguins won the first two games of the series, but Nashville spanked the Penguins, 5-1 in Game 3, and 4-1. Game 4. The Penguins gas tank was on E, even as they surged for a 6-0 win in Game 5. Did they have enough for one more win?
Nashville had their legs in Game 6, even as the ice looked (and felt) like shag carpeting. Game 6 seemingly hung by a thread. Nashville again pressured the Penguins, early in the second period.
Nashville winger Filip Forsberg ripped a point-blank chance at Penguins goalie Matt Murray. It trickled through Murray. The three-inch black piece of vulcanized rubber looked like 35 pounds of silver as it laid in the crease, motionless.
Murray didn’t know where it was. Nashville was racing towards it.
Colton Sissons fought through Penguins defenseman Olli Maatta.
“Every time we got back to the bench, we felt that next shift was going to be the one that was going to go for us,” Sissons said. “And we kept that all the way through.”
Murray thought he had the puck. So, too, did the referees. With the puck dribbling into view, the officials blew the whistle just as Sisson’s poked it into the yawning cage.
The game was scoreless until late in the third period. The Penguins won when Patric Hornqvist scored in the waning minutes, and Carl Hagelin buried the empty-net clincher. The Penguins were Stanley Cup champs, again. But what a different history may have evolved had that heart-stopping moment gone the other way.
3. Crosby Ping-pong ball
Not many witnessed this moment because it occurred in the middle of the day, and not on national US TV, but it might be the most critical heart-stopper in Pittsburgh Penguins history.
There was no hockey in 2004-05. There was no Stanley Cup champion, and no teams so bad they had crates of ping pong balls with their logo in the NHL lottery. Instead, every team was given a chance at the top overall pick. The worst teams of 2003-04, which certainly included the Penguins, were given three balls, the middling teams had two chances in the bin, and the best teams had one ball.
The Penguins had only a 6.3% chance to win the lottery and draft phenom, Sidney Crosby.
Penguins fans may forget the hopeless and infuriating climate. The Penguins and owner Mario Lemieux were battling state and local lawmakers for a new arena. The Civic Arena was no longer a viable revenue-producing barn. The recently bankrupt Penguins were fighting not just to be competitive (they really weren’t), but to survive. Lemieux was about to be 40-years-old, and he was still playing in part because he was his team’s only attraction.
2003 first-overall pick Marc-Andre Fleury was still working through his game in the minors. 2004 first-round pick (2nd overall) Evgeni Malkin was still under heavy Russian pressure to remain in the KHL, and the Penguins roster more closely resembled a hockey salvage yard than an NHL contender.
In 2005, everything began to change. The owners locked out the players until the NHLPA agreed to a salary cap. Owners agreed to revenue sharing. And the Penguins again had a chance to be competitive, but the arena situation hung over the organization like a doomsday clock. Tick, tick…tick.
As ping pong balls were selected, Tampa Bay, Florida, Dallas were the first three teams to see their logos appear, which meant they picked 30th, 29th, and 28th. The Penguins logo didn’t appear. 15, 14, 13, the Islanders, Capitals, and Sabres saw their chances evaporate to get Crosby.
5…4…3. Minnesota, Montreal, Carolina.
Two teams remained. The Pittsburgh Penguins and Anaheim Ducks. To this day, if you’d like to elicit a rise out of then-Anaheim GM Brian Burke, simply mention this moment. Two teams. One game-changing, franchise-altering phenom.
And…let’s go to commercial! Seriously?! Aww, cmon!! With the fate of two teams about to be decided, hearts pounding, the NHL broadcast partners took a well-placed TV timeout. Each side had to wait two minutes to find out the winner.
No. 2…Anaheim. The Penguins won. Sports don’t often stick to the script, but sometimes the Hollywood ending fits. The beleaguered Penguins in a fight for survival had a 94% chance to lose but somehow came away with the next great superstar and heir apparent to Lemieux.
More than a few dress shirts were soaked in that wait for the winner. Whew. It was another improbable, yet history-altering moment which helped to save the Penguins.
2. David Volek. You Broke My Heart.
In 1993, the world stood still. Nothing moved. No one took a breath for what seemed like hours. The blue and white unis of the New York Islanders piled on top of each other. That was the only movement as everything else seemed frozen in time. The 1992-93 Pittsburgh Penguins were the best team in hockey and two time defending Stanley Cup champions. They had the greatest player in the world, the greatest coach, yet were beaten by a scruffy band of nobodies.
Game 7. Second Round. The Penguins dynasty was over in a flash. The hopes and expectations, the exuberance, and joys were unceremoniously dashed. A march into history ripped from every Penguins fan and player. The TV replays surely would show something different; they would show a different reality or a reason to keep playing. Surely, on the next replay, the puck wouldn’t go in, and time would rewind. Surely that didn’t just happen.
Overtime. David Volek blasted a one-timer past Penguins goalie Tom Barrasso. If our hearts kept beating, we were unaware.
The underdog New York Islanders and Volek beat the Pittsburgh Penguins in OT to advance to the Conference Final, while the Penguins were about to hit a financial tailspin, player’s lives were about to be changed forever, and Lemieux never again played for the Stanley Cup, though he got close in 1996-96 and in 2000-01.
1. Fleury save on Lidstrom. Stanley Cup Victory.
The Penguins 2008 Stanley Cup loss was still a fresh wound. In 2009, the Penguins rallied to win Game 6 and avoid elimination, unlike the previous year. As Penguins Hall of Fame broadcaster, Mike Lange bellowed after Game 6, “I’ll meet you in the schoolyard for all the marbles!”
Stanley Cup Final. Game 7. If anyone could breathe, they were the lucky ones, at least until Penguins Max Talbot buried a two-on-one. The Penguins led 1-0. OK.
Then Talbot buried another. 2-0. OK!
But just as the Penguins did in 2008, Detroit mounted an intense comeback. The Penguins were scrambling. Detroit defenseman Jonathan Ericsson scored with six minutes remaining. 2-1. Uh oh.
Subset: Detroit heat-seeking missile Niklas Kronwall hit the crossbar with two minutes remaining, and heart surgeons in Pittsburgh had a bunch of new patients.
Detroit overwhelmed the Penguins in the final minutes. Goalie Marc-Andre Fleury was brilliant. Then spectacular. And brilliant again.
It came down to one moment. Hall of Fame defenseman Nicklas Lidstrom had a chance. The puck sat perfectly in the right-wing circle. Lidstrom pounced. Fleury dove.
The Penguins won.
And every Penguins fan echoed Fleury’s sentiment when a postgame reporter asked the obvious question–What was going through your mind when Lidstrom had the chance? “I was just thinking, ‘Oh sh*t,’ ” Fleury laughed.
Yeah, so too were millions of Penguins fans who let out an exhale followed by joyous roars.
Leave your heart-stopping moments in the comments below.