April 25, 1989. The Civic Arena was shaking. A new generation of Pittsburgh Penguins fans and one much larger than any which came before were getting their first taste of NHL playoff hockey. Mario Lemieux put on a spectacular show that night, which still stands alone in NHL history. The Pittsburgh Penguins won Game 5 of the Patrick Division Final, 10-7 over the Philadelphia Flyers, which also stands as one of the highest-scoring playoff games in NHL history.
Lemieux scored five goals and eight points, but the game is remembered as much for winger Rob Brown, who drew the rage of Philadelphia Flyers goalie Ron Hextall after Brown scored the ninth Penguins goal.
It’s been more than 30 years since Hextall chased Brown. With his stick raised above his head, Hextall charged Brown like a horror movie villain, complete will ill intent.
It was also one of, if not the wildest playoff game in NHL history. Lemieux went off. The Penguins future owner and best in the world thoroughly dominated the game. No other player has ever scored five goals and eight points in an NHL playoff game (Patrick Sundstrom had three goals and five assists for New Jersey in 1988).
The game should have been a blowout, but Philadelphia power forward Tim Kerr snapped a hat trick, and Brown’s first goal of the game, the Penguins eighth marker, became the game-winner.
The iconic moment came later in the game.
After Brown scored the ninth goal, he unleashed his trademark goal celly. He windmilled like Pete Townsend, hitting the hard notes of Baba O’Reilly as one leg shot into the air. Like famed New York Islanders netminder Billy Smith, Hextall was the latest in a line of goalies not afraid to inflict pain with his goalie paddle, and Hextall raged from the net towards Brown.
Brown bolted. Officials and players got in the way, so neither Brown nor Hextall found out just how far Hextall was willing to go.
“I teach at three schools, three academies. The new students always look up ‘Coach Brownie.’ So for two weeks, they’ll come in, ‘You got beat up by a goalie,’ ” Brown laughed. “First, I tell them, no, I didn’t get beat up. But every September, I go through this.”
“I was skating away. I wasn’t faster than many players, but I could outskate a goalie,” Brown exclaimed.
In 1988-89, all hell broke loose. Lemieux scored 199 points in one of the greatest individual seasons in NHL history. Brown scored 49 goals and 115 points while sitting shotgun on Mario’s Thelma and Louise ride through NHL goalies.
The 1988-89 Penguins were, in many ways, the beginning of the Pittsburgh Penguins fanbase. Sure, when Lemieux arrived in 1984, people began to pay attention to hockey. A little bit, anyway. Fans packed the old Civic Arena on holidays and weekends, but the Penguins had not yet experienced success and thus had not truly arrived in a town tagged, “The City of Champions.”
“I remember in the locker room, you could feel and hear the shaking of the stands,” Brown said with some amazement still in his voice 31 years later.
The 1989 playoff run was the first playoff appearance in the Lemieux era, after several years of agonizing misses in the extraordinarily tight Patrick Division. In 1987-88, the Penguins finished seven points behind the division leader, but also in fifth place. Back then, only the top four teams made the playoffs. There were no wild cards, and teams with fewer points in other divisions often made the playoffs.
But Brown, the Edmonton Oilers color analyst who grew up watching Wayne Gretzky, knows where to rank Lemieux.
“(Lemieux) is the greatest ever. Good players have great nights. Great players have special nights,” Brown said of Lemieux in general and his that five-goal playoff outburst. “What set Mario apart was his strength. He could make plays one-on-one. He was like no player who has ever played.”
Brown also noted Lemieux’s lack of protection from officials.
“He was abused every year. He didn’t get the calls because he was so strong. His feet were still moving,” Brown said. “Two or three guys would be on him … If there was a breakaway for the Stanley Cup or a penalty shot in the third period … he’s the greatest.”
Curse of the Spectrum
“Every question from reporters wasn’t about the Stanley Cup. It was, ‘Can you beat Philadelphia,’ ” Brown added. “We hadn’t won there in 15 years. We were like their little brother.”
For those who don’t remember, before Sidney Crosby learned to hate Philadelphia, and before Max Talbot shushed the rowdy Philadelphia crowd, the Philadelphia Flyers were the Broad Street Bullies. They pummeled the hapless Pittsburgh Penguins for two decades. After Bobby Clarke, Terry Crisp, and the Bullies were done, the next crop included Tim Kerr, Brian Propp, and perennial Penguins killer Dave Poulin.
And some kid named Rick Tocchet, too.
The Penguins didn’t just lose in Philadelphia. They were often embarrassed. The dominant Flyers were Stanley Cup contenders. They had an organizational philosophy and bloodthirsty fans. They hammered on the Penguins teams, which annually scrapped for the first overall pick.
The Penguins had a 3-2 series lead after Lemieux’s heroics and Brown’s goals. The remainder of Game 5 was chippy, with old school players sending old school messages.
Brown recalled the final shift of Game 5 when everyone grabbed somebody and fists flew.
“I think it was Gord Murphy. He had a hold of me,” Brown recalled. “He kept saying, ‘The series isn’t over. This ain’t over.’ And he was right.”
The Penguins lost Games 6 and 7 of the Divisional Final, but they chased Ron Hextall, who didn’t start either game. Future Penguins netminder Ken Wregget was a wall as Philadelphia rebounded from the 10-7 Game 5 loss to win Game 6 in Philadelphia then Game 7 in Pittsburgh to end the Penguins first Mario-era playoff run.
“I don’t really remember much about Game 7,” Brown said. “I just remember thinking, ‘That goalie just stole the game.’ ”
In fairness to Brown, there wasn’t much to remember in Game 7, but he did remember the exact shot total. The Pittsburgh Penguins peppered Wregget with 40 shots on goal. Wregget stopped 39.
In Game 7, the Penguins managed a solitary goal by Lemieux in the second period. Philadelphia scored three unanswered goals, including a heartbreaking shortie by Poulin and a goal in the first minute of the third period by Tocchet.
The Penguins missed the playoffs in 1990 because Lemieux had back surgery, and Buffalo Sabres defensive defenseman Uwe Krupp blasted a shot past Penguins goalie Tom Barrasso.
The 1989 experience, and the 1990 loss, which enabled the Pittsburgh Penguins to draft Jaromir Jagr, launched the Penguins to the 1991 Stanley Cup, and three decades of trophies, Stanley Cups and a full house.
“Growing pains,” Brown termed the Penguins evolution, which began months after Ronald Reagan left the Oval Office. “You don’t realize what a difference (between the NHL playoffs and regular season). The physicality, intensity, emotion. You’re not prepared unless you go through it.”
After scoring 49 goals in 1988-89, Brown scored 33 more in 1989-90. Brown was traded to Hartford in December 1990 for Scott Young, two months before the Penguins again dealt with Hartford to acquire Ron Francis and Ulf Samuelsson.
Rob Brown is currently a color analyst with the Edmonton Oilers. He never lifted a Stanley Cup with the Penguins, including a second stint with the team from 1997-2000. He had plenty of stories to share about Darius Kaspairitis, the next generation rivalry with Philadelphia, including Eric Lindros, and his view on players like Ulf Samuelsson.
Look for that sidebar coming soon.