Some NHL franchises have never won a Stanley Cup, nor have they had multiple players worthy of immediate Hockey Hall of Fame induction without the three-year waiting period. In the last 30-plus years, the Pittsburgh Penguins have put more than a dozen Hall of Famers and future Hall residents on the ice, lifted five Stanley Cups, and we’ve had the pleasure of the watching the greatest player in the game for most or all of those 30 years.
In those years, there have been so many games that have indelibly imprinted themselves upon those who were there. Most of those games were at the long-standing Civic Arena. There was just something about that place. It may not have produced nearly enough revenue for the Penguins to remain a viable franchise in the modern world of soaring athlete salaries, but it sure did rock when things went well.
Growing up, my family was never season ticket holders. Instead, hockey games were a treat worthy of the Pad Thai from Nicky’s Thai Kitchen, a Prantl’s burnt almond torte, or my new favorite, Italian Beef with hot peppers from Famous Flavors.
Anyone else already suffering from cabin fever? Anyway…
By the luck of the draw, I was a fan and ticket holder for a couple of the great Mario Lemieux outbursts, which made NHL history. I have also been so fortunate to have a career in this world. I’ve covered some of the most significant games in the NHL over the past 20 years, too.
Unfortunately, I had not yet crossed over into sports media in 2000. Of course, one of the top five Pittsburgh Penguins games of all time will always be Dec. 27, 2000, which was Lemieux’s comeback game. Like most of you, I sat glued to the television that night.
My Top 5 Penguins Games:
5. Five Goals, Five Ways
For those of us lucky enough to have watched Lemieux, you knew when he was about to deliver something special. You knew because he knew. Even the opponents knew, but there was nothing anyone could do to stop it. When Mario had that jump in his step, the crowd at the Civic Arena would stand when he touched the puck.
Electricity would spread through the crowd. We would bounce in our seats, waiting for his next shift. You knew you were about to see something (and our heads weren’t buried in a cell phone, so we had to talk to the people around us).
It was our annual Christmas present. Penguins tickets! I assume it was also a giveaway day, usually the Long John Silver’s Lemieux jersey, a poster, or something. That mattered less than the game, though as a kid, the chotchkies were cool.
Poor Chris Terreri. The 5-foot-9 New Jersey Devils goalie could have been 7-foot-5 and he wasn’t going to stop Lemieux that day. The even strength goal, the power play blast, and the shorthanded goal all happened in the first period. We were beside ourselves already. Then the second-period penalty shot. If you had a voice left, you weren’t paying attention. And…the empty netter on an assist from Jay Caufield as time expired.
You had to be there to believe it.
4. Dec. 31, 2015: Win over Detroit
Something about New Year’s Eve, huh?
For most, this game stands as a footnote in the Pittsburgh Penguins 2016 Stanley Cup championship. For me, it was the birth of it. And I knew it on the spot. The Penguins were still adapting to new head coach Mike Sullivan. It had been an eventful and rocky transition from head coach Mike Johnston to Sullivan, as those two men are about as different as two head coaches can be.
The Penguins did not have a comeback win for over a year, but things were coming together, and you could see it. The Penguins style had changed overnight. What they could do to opponents with their oppressive forecheck, speed and talent were also coming into focus, too. However, they were fragile. They were unsure of themselves–until their comeback win in Detroit.
They scored, ney, they exploded for three third period goals. It was a bruising game. Detroit was not yet a cupcake and still had a few thumpers. They made the Penguins earn the win at the old Joe Louis Arena. The only two Pittsburgh media folks there were Josh Yohe and me, so we had free reign in the locker room.
Yet it was Patric Hornqvist with a fresh black-eye who stood in the middle of the room talking to us like a general giving a famous pre-battle speech. He knew, too, as noise and laughter and backslapping filled the hallway.
This was the spark for the rise of the Penguins.
3. Game 6, SCF 2008
Please accept my apologies for the bad memory. The Detroit Red Wings schooled the Pittsburgh Penguins in the 2008 Stanley Cup Final. By Game 4, there was a sense of inevitability. But the Penguins didn’t wave the white flag. Far from it. Brooks Orpik pounded every Detroit player within 10 feet. And he plastered a few more who were farther away, too. The crowd was deafening as Orpik was on a seek and destroy mission, I swear the glass was shaking.
That old barn was certainly rocking.
Huddled in the bowels of the Civic Arena, we prepared for the Stanley Cup presentation and locker room aftermath (back then, we were allowed into the winning and losing locker room). About 30 media types from the national stars to lowly me with a little syndicated radio show, huddled around an old tube TV on a cart. The same kind of TV and cart that the substitute teacher would wheel into class on movie day. The colors weren’t so vivid, but we watched…as Marian Hossa’s shot fluttered over Chris Osgood as time expired. The gasp, and yells from the media throng were more like a sports bar. We had all witnessed an extraordinary game played by two championship-caliber teams.
I’ll also never forget the locker room scene. Champagne bottles were strewn everywhere in the tiny, dingy visitors locker room. We were crammed as a Detroit defenseman grabbed the Cup, filled it with beer, and told my radio partner and me to drink. Umm, OK!
The moment which I’ll never forget, however, was with Dominik Hasek. The Hall of Fame goalie was curled up in the corner by himself. It was his last game. He had a cigar, unlit, and a satisfied smile on his face. I nodded. He nodded. It was the best interview I’ve ever done, and not a word was said.
The Penguins learned their lesson, as you may know. In 2009, Sidney Crosby did take his place in the pantheon of great players. Evgeni Malkin got to hoist the Stanley Cup, and Marc-Andre Fleury got his championship. All’s well that ends well.
2. Game 7, Round Two, 2017 NHL Playoffs
You knew it, and they knew it. The winner of Game 7 between the Pittsburgh Penguins and Washington Capitals at the Capital One Center (then the Verizon Center), was going to win the Stanley Cup. The Penguins were the defending Stanley Cup champions, but Washington badly bruised the Penguins in the series. I mean, Washington pounded the snot out of the Penguins.
Game 7 in Washington was the most intense pressurized game I’ve ever witnessed. It was two gladiators going into the arena, knowing only one would come out. The pressure was so intense that even staff had to leave the arena for a walk. I did, too.
It seems everyone was stressed, except the Penguins players. The Penguins earned a 2-0 shutout as Fleury again bedeviled the Capitals and laughed as he did it.
One player later said, off the record, “We knew they’d be tight. That gave us confidence.”
The Penguins did win the Stanley Cup, too.
1. Game 5, Round Two 1989
OK, this is purely personal. It was another Lemieux night. After some ridiculous near misses in the previous seasons because the Patrick Division was as stacked as the current Metro, but there were no wild-cards, the Pittsburgh Penguins finally made the playoffs with No. 66 at the helm.
They blew past the New York Rangers in the First Round, a four-game sweep which began with a Paul Coffey slapshot goal (I was there, too!).
Round Two was against the Philadelphia Flyers, who tortured the Penguins in the 1970s and 1980s. Game 5 was the wildest, most exciting, most…everything game I’ve ever witnessed. Lemieux didn’t just have a hat trick. He hung a ridiculous five-goal spot on Philadelphia goalie Ron Hextall.
The Penguins scored 10 goals that night. Mario’s sidecar winger, Robby Brown buried the ninth Penguins goal past Hextall, who then angrily chased Brown as he celebrated. The TV angles don’t show it as well, but our seats were at the faceoff circle where Brown did the windmill, and Hextall lept from the crease with rage and waving his goalie paddle with malicious intent.
After the goal, the Penguins led 9-3. Actually, this was a turning point in the series, for the worse. The Penguins didn’t win another game in the series. Ron Hextall was replaced in Game 7 by Ken Wregget, and Philadelphia won the series. But this night was ours. Mario had an eight-points, and the Penguins held on to win 10-7.
11-year-old me will never forget this one, either.
So, what are your top games? List ’em in the comments section below: