Phil Bourque called the Penguins’ end to the 1989-90 season “as bitter an ending as you could imagine.”
Heading into the final game of the year, they needed just a tie against Buffalo to earn their second consecutive playoff berth. Instead, Sabres defenseman Uwe Krupp’s overtime goal meant the Penguins would watch the postseason from home for the seventh time in the past eight seasons.
“If you haven’t always been in the playoffs if you’re with an organization, that’s the first step, let’s just get into the playoffs,” winger Troy Loney said.
The Penguins not only achieved that goal the next year, they went just a bit further, harnessing the inspiration of coach Bob Johnson’s relentless positivity all the way to the franchise’s first Stanley Cup in 1991.
“I think we felt like we had the talent,” winger Bob Errey said. “We had a lot of pieces. Mario [Lemieux] in his prime. It was kind of, ‘Let’s try and get it done here while he’s got that window and we’ll see how many we can win.’”
The first step towards realizing that lofty goal was general manager Craig Patrick hiring Johnson — as well as Scotty Bowman as director of player development — on June 12, 1990.
“All of a sudden, the Penguins had arguably the best management staff in the league,” longtime Penguins analyst Paul Steigerwald said.
Johnson had coached the Flames from 1982-87, and spent 15 years coaching collegiately at Wisconsin before that.
While he brought plenty of experience knowledge of the game, Johnson’s best attribute was his overwhelmingly positive attitude, exemplified by his now-famous catchphrase, “It’s a great day for hockey!”
Key dates in Penguins history
"He left 'em on the Parkway heading to the airport" was Mike Lange's call. Lemieux, in a perfect amalgamation of his size, speed and skill, splits two North Stars and beats Jon Casey for one of the signature goals of his career, in Game 2 of the Stanley Cup finals, no less.
Stanley Cup 1.0
An 8-0 win against the North Stars in Bloomington, Minn., sends the Stanley Cup to Pittsburgh for the first time in franchise history. "Go for it, Mario, go for it." Lange narrates, as Lemieux hoists the Cup.
“It just seemed like he woke up at 5 o’clock every morning with lightning in his eyes to get to the rink,” Bourque said. “That became contagious.”
Well, it became contagious eventually. The Penguins started off the 1990-91 season going 12-16-3 in their first 31 games. Part of the issue was they were playing without Lemieux, who missed the first 50 games of the year due to the back issues that plagued his entire career.
The Penguins turned things around with a six-game winning streak in mid-December, and Lemieux returned at the end of January to a team that had learned how to win without him.
“I think it was kind of a real foundation for success that season,” Steigerwald said. “The team started to believe in itself even without Mario in the lineup.”
Center Bryan Trottier, signed the previous offseason after winning four Stanley Cups with the Islanders, was the only Penguin who had experience winning it all. Loney said his confidence in the team midseason went a long way.
“Trottier was always saying, ‘Hey, you know, this is a very, very good team,’” Loney recalled. “You kind of start going, ‘OK, maybe there is something happening.’”
Still, after a 4-7-1 February, the Penguins still needed some tweaking. Lemieux was back, but there were still some questions along the blue line. Steigerwald recalled a road trip to Western Canada — a pair of losses to the Canucks and Flames — that showed some deficiencies in the Penguins’ lineup.
“Danny Quinn was playing for the Canucks at that time, and he was cross-checking our defenseman Zarley Zalapski in front of the net,” Steigerwald said. “That kind of to me was a symbol that we needed something there. We left Vancouver, flew back to Pittsburgh. Badger Bob had made some cryptic comments in the paper, saying something like, ‘You see what we’ve got back there.’”
Three days after returning home, Patrick shipped Zalapski, center John Cullen and winger Jeff Parker to the Whalers in exchange for center Ron Francis and defensemen Ulf Samuelsson and Grant Jennings.
“You hated to see them go, but I remember that first day looking across [the dressing room] — because I sat across from Ronny Francis — I remember looking going, ‘Holy smokes, we got Ronny Francis. This is amazing,’” Bourque said.
Steigerwald also credited the addition of Samuelsson, who he called “Jack Lambert on skates,” with toughening up the Penguins’ defensive corps.
“He was sort of a symbol for what the Penguins became,” Steigerwald said. “They really gained momentum down the stretch, became a much tougher team to play against.”
The Penguins surged to a 9-3-2 finish after the trade, and claimed their first-ever Patrick Division championship.
It was hardly a cruise through the playoffs, though. The Penguins lost the first game of every series — and had to rally from a 3-2 series deficit in the first round against the Devils — to reach their first Stanley Cup final against Minnesota.
In keeping to form, the North Stars took Game 1 at Civic Arena before the Penguins answered back with a Game 2 win. Errey described Minnesota’s gameplan as “just hog-tie us, try to beat us to a pulp.”
The North Stars won Game 3 at home, but the Penguins took Games 4 and 5 to set up a potential clincher in Game 6 in Minnesota. “I remember the morning skate talking to [winger Joey Mullen],” Loney said. “He said, ‘You feel this? I’ve never felt this nervous before.’ I said, ‘Yeah, we’re just going to smoke them tonight.’”
Loney was right. Samuelsson scored less than two minutes into the game, and the rout was on. The Penguins were up 3-0 by the end of the first, and 6-0 at the end of the second. By the third period, it was just a matter of time.
“That clock just didn’t seem to move,” Loney said.
The Penguins ended up winning 8-0 to claim the franchise’s first Stanley Cup title, and the players got to experience the singular joy of lifting the Stanley Cup for the first time.
“It’s true, you can’t really put it into words,” Errey said. “You can’t. What does it feel like? It feels like something you’ve tried to achieve your whole life, really.”
Lemieux won the Conn Smythe Trophy, leading all players with 44 playoff points in just 23 games, leaving teammates mesmerized by “the way Mario performed, and the way he played, and the way he led just kind of drove that team through everywhere,” Loney said.
Lemieux was superlative, but all of the Penguins players put their lives on hold for a month during the Cup run. Bourque recalled going into his home office after the playoffs and seeing unpaid bills spilling out.
“It was one of those things where nothing else matters except the next shift, the next game when it came playoff time,” Bourque said. “Maybe I was a little bit more of the extreme than most, but that’s just the way I felt you had to be if you wanted to be all in and win the Cup.”
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