Mario's home debut
October 17, 1984: Penguins 4, Canucks 3
It was time for the No. 1 pick to play in front of Pittsburgh for the first time, and he didn’t disappoint on a rainy Wednesday evening. Almost a week earlier, he made his NHL debut, but it was on the road at Boston. That night, on his first shift, he swiped the puck from Bruins legend and future Hall of Famer Ray Bourque, then scored his first goal on his first shot in the big show before the Penguins lost, 4-3. This night, on his first shift, he won the faceoff, then set up Doug Shedden for a goal 18 seconds into the game before the Penguins won, 4-3. Later in the first period, Lemieux did something that would turn out to be exceedingly rare throughout the rest of his career: He fought. Lemieux dropped the gloves after what he saw as a cheap shot from Vancouver’s Gary Lupul, scuffled with the 5-foot-9 forward and landed a few blows before another Canuck intervened. It was one of just six career fights for Lemieux, whose overall performance prompted the Post-Gazette headline the following day, “Lemieux debieux: Rumors are trieux” above Bruce Keidan’s column, and perhaps Pittsburgh never again needed to wonder in what order those vowels are arranged. “It took him 18 seconds to turn the curious and the pessimistic and the long-suffering hopeful into the Mario Lemieux Fan Club,” Keidan wrote that night. “They didn’t wait for that, though. They gave him a thunderous, standing ovation during the pregame introductions. Just in case he really was that good.” If they only knew then how much more of Lemieux there would be to come, both on the ice and on this list.
Lost and found
May 10, 2016: Penguins 4, Capitals 3
Hopefully memories of this one are still sharp, as it was just this past spring, and smack in the middle of what would become a march to the Penguins’ fourth Stanley Cup. Leading the Eastern Conference semifinal series, 3-2, the ultimatum was simple: Put away rival Washington in six games, or go back to D.C. for a decisive Game 7 against the team that had been the NHL’s best all season. On the bright side, the game was at Consol Energy Center, the Penguins’ home fans at their back ready to cap a postseason upset of sorts. The good news to start was that Phil Kessel scored 5:41 into the game for an early shot in the arm and 1-0 lead. The better news was when he scored again at 7:05 of the second. And even better still, the Penguins scored yet again, this time Carl Hagelin just 33 seconds later. Then the bad news, just about everything that came next. T.J. Oshie notched a power-play goal with a minute and a half left in the second period to send the Capitals into the locker room down 3-1 rather than 3-0 entering the third. At 7:23, Washington’s Justin Williams made it 3-2. And at 13:01, following three consecutive delay-of-game penalties on the Penguins, John Carlson’s shot on a power play found its way past Matt Murray. A three-goal lead was gone. All of it? Yes, all of it. But going back to the good news, the best of all on this night was yet to come. The Penguins refocused between the third period and overtime, and Nick Bonino buried a rebound to end the series and win the game that might’ve been the most thrilling of the entire 2016 Cup run. “That was pretty crazy, wasn’t it?” Kessel said of the wild, penalty-filled stretch of 122 seconds in the third. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen that.”
December 31, 1988: Penguins 8, Devils 6
Ah, the good old days when the goals flowed fast and furious. We weren’t kidding when advising that this Top 10 would feature mucho Mario. It’s more than likely Lemieux was never better than this night, when he did something no NHL player has ever done. Not one, not two, not three, not four, but five goals — in five different ways. There was an empty-netter, even-strength, penalty, short-handed, man-advantage, and all sure-handed by a player who was fast becoming a superstar fresh off his first of three Hart Trophies awarded to the NHL MVP and first of seven Art Ross Trophies for leading the league in points. On New Year’s Eve at Civic Arena, Lemieux found the net more times in a night than some players do in a full season. He already had a hat trick by the time the first period was over and got the rarest of his fabulous five — the penalty shot — in the second period after backup Devils goalie Chris Terreri tossed his stick. Some will still argue to this day that Lemieux’s empty-netter, officially scored as coming in at 19:59, didn’t make it past the crease in time, but that’s a footnote lost to history now. Lost amid a feat that’s still the only of its kind in NHL history and by the only Penguins player ever to score five in a game. “I think we all just saw Mario’s gift, a little late for Christmas, to me and the fans,” coach Gene Ubriaco told The Pittsburgh Press after the game. “I’m not going to say ‘Awesome.’ I’ve said that too many times.” No one, not even Ubriaco, knew what Lemieux would do that night, so while it might have been the most impressive of his performances, it wasn’t the most anticipated. Cue the next game on this list...
December 27, 2000: Penguins 5, Maple Leafs 0
If Lemieux’s debut was splendid, and his five-goals-five-ways game scintillating, his return to the ice at the turn of the century was simply superb. Knocking off the rust of a 3½-year retirement, perhaps no one truly knew what to expect from the longtime face of the franchise, team owner and newly minted Hall of Famer on this evening. But if the front page of the Post-Gazette’s sports section was any indication, the city’s hopes were at an all-time high. “Mario returns: Tonight’s the night!” greeted readers in big, bold letters and inside, Lemieux said himself, “I’m looking forward to the first time I step on the ice and having the chance to play again. It won’t be long now.” And it certainly wasn’t long before he sent the sellout Mellon Arena crowd into a long-awaited frenzy. On the first shift of the game, 33 seconds in, Lemieux notched an assist to Jaromir Jagr and the rout was on. Lemieux, at 35, provided an even bigger highlight with his second-period goal, this time set up by Jagr, and later had another assist to finish with three points. “I’m surprised he didn’t get five, to tell you the truth,” then-assistant general manager Eddie Johnston, who drafted Lemieux in 1984, told columnist Ron Cook after the game. “The great ones, they’re two or three steps ahead in their thinking. They see things no one else can.” And the headline fans saw on the cover of our entire paper the next morning might have said it best: “LEMIEUX LIKE NEW.”
November 21, 2011: Penguins 5, Islanders 0
The similarities are almost eerie. Eleven years later, the Penguins’ best player and an unquestioned NHL virtuoso returns to the ice after a prolonged absence. In front of a jam-packed home crowd. With an early display of his trademark excellence. Leading to an easy win. A 5-0 victory, at that. Mario Lemieux’s return was a comeback from retirement, a layoff of more than three years — Sidney Crosby’s only felt like that long. After a hiatus of more than 10 months because of a concussion, Crosby was back at Consol Energy Center on a Monday night. He scored a little more than five minutes into the game. He scored again in the third period. He even added two assists to one-up his mentor/predecessor Lemieux and finish with a four-point night. On top of all that, he withstood some physical checks but got right back up to prove he was back at full strength. Just like Lemieux in 2000, it was the focus of the next day’s paper — and not just the sports section. “I don’t really have good words for it,” then-coach Dan Bylsma said after the game. “That was special in a lot of ways. Just how dynamic he was in this game, it was a pleasure to be behind the bench watching that.”
May 21, 1991: Penguins 5, North Stars 3
The Penguins didn’t win their first Stanley Cup until a few days later — an 8-0 destruction of Minnesota in Game 6 — but Game 4 on May 21 tied the series for the visitors, and in a wild way. The Penguins, with Mario Lemieux back in the lineup after missing Game 3 with back spasms, scored three goals in less than three minutes to start the game, only to have the North Stars climb back and make it 4-3 entering the third period. But this one is memorable because the Penguins held on to win on the road — and take a deadlocked series back home with them, to boot — and thus paved the way to their first championship. The early flood of goals came courtesy of Kevin Stevens (58 seconds in), Ron Francis (at 2:36) and, naturally, Lemieux (22 seconds after Francis). Likely most important, though, were goalie Tom Barrasso’s 35 saves — especially considering the North Stars outshot the Penguins, 38-24. The momentum shifted for the Penguins, and they closed out the Stanley Cup final with wins in the next two games for one of the first watershed moments in franchise history.
March 2, 1993: Flyers 5, Penguins 4
One thing everyone can agree on is it takes a lot to make notoriously surly Philadelphia fans cheer — and it’s nothing short of a modern miracle to get them to celebrate an opposing player. That alone makes for a worthy inclusion of the first Penguins loss on this list. The final score of the game mattered not, though, as all anyone could talk about or write about before and after was Lemieux — and this time it wasn’t because of his potent playmaking or effortless skating. Lemieux was diagnosed with cancer — Hodgkin lymphoma — not even two months earlier, an announcement that sent shockwaves through Pittsburgh and the hockey world. His radiation treatments began in earnest, with Lemieux enduring his final one the morning of March 2. He was not about to miss a 24th consecutive game, catching a flight to the City of Brotherly Love where, for once, he was actually shown some. The Spectrum crowd cheered him pregame, then even more when the starting lineups were announced and finally culminating with a lengthy standing ovation as he skated onto the ice before faceoff. Never one to disappoint, Lemieux registered a goal and an assist in what would turn out to be the Penguins’ second-to-last loss before finishing the regular season on an 18-game unbeaten streak. “It’s unbelievable,” winger Kevin Stevens gushed afterward. “It’s crazy. How can you even imagine what he did tonight? There’s only one person in the world who could do it, and it’s him.”
Seven hours in May
May 4-5, 2000: Flyers 2, Penguins 1
Another Penguins loss on the list, another one to Philadelphia, another by just one goal. This one was certainly much more heart-breaking than the Flyers loss in Lemieux’s return from cancer, but no one can deny what a great game it was. With the score tied at 1-1 at Mellon Arena after regulation, both teams knew they were in for a second consecutive overtime tilt in Game 4 of this Eastern Conference semifinal playoff series, but had no idea they’d be in for five extra periods before a world of hurt. By the time the Post-Gazette could finally send a paper to press, the headline read, “Darkest before the dawn,” and the following morning gave way to a special section dubbed “Seven hours in May.” The bad news is that it was the second of four consecutive victories for the Flyers to go on to win the series, 4-2, and end the Penguins’ season after they had a 2-0 lead after Game 2. The good news was everything else for hockey fans who enjoy the most wild and wonderful memories of the sport. The game time alone — 152 minutes, 1 second — is the third longest in NHL history. Finally, 12:01 into the fifth overtime, Flyers center Keith Primeau mercifully ended it all by beating Penguins goalie Ron Tugnutt — who made 70 saves otherwise — over his left shoulder. It was 2:35 a.m., and at long last, the night was over for players, fans and arena employees who sold food, drinks and merchandise until the bitter end. “If the Penguins had won, we probably would have picked up even more sales,” Steve Musciano, ARAMARK Corp. general manager, told the Post-Gazette’s Phil Axelrod. “I would have loved to have printed up shirts saying ‘I WAS THERE FOR 8 PERIODS’ or ‘I SURVIVED THE FLYERS GAME,’ but that was impossible.”
The Cup comes back
June 12, 2009: Penguins 2, Red Wings 1
Game 7 of a Stanley Cup final, one of the biggest stages possible in North American sports. Amazingly, this is one that lived up to the hype. After 16 years without it, a core group of players that was preordained to do exactly this brought the Stanley Cup back to Pittsburgh by winning a thriller in Detroit. But it wasn’t Crosby or Malkin, the latter of whom accepted the Conn Smythe Trophy as MVP of the postseason, who played the heroes. After memorably shushing a hostile Philadelphia crowd earlier in this same playoff run, Max Talbot buried not one but both goals at Joe Louis Arena to etch his name into Penguins lore, then called it the best day of his life. “I’m not really thinking I’m a hero,” he said on the ice in the moments after. “I scored two goals, but everybody on this team is a hero.” Oh, right, because while Talbot did the heavy lifting from a scoring standpoint, Marc-Andre Fleury put forth one of his most memorable performances as Penguins goalie. He stopped 23 of 24 Red Wings shots, none producing more of a flashbulb moment than his last-second diving save of a Nicklas Lidstrom attempt off a loose rebound. “It’s everything you dream of,” said Sidney Crosby, who missed much of the action with a second-period knee injury. “It’s an amazing feeling.”
The pajama game
April 24-25, 1996: Penguins 3, Capitals 2
There’s an argument to be made that the third-longest game in NHL history should’ve topped this list, but we’re giving our nod to the fifth longest. For one, the Penguins came out on top in this one. For two, the memories from this four-overtime marathon abound. It was Game 4 of a first-round series and, like the five-overtime game, the second of four consecutive wins for the Penguins to rally from a 2-0 deficit and reach the Eastern Conference semifinals. Game time was 139:15, six hours and 38 minutes, making it the third longest in league history and longest in Penguins history at the time, not to mention the longest since 1933. At 2:16 a.m., Petr Nedved produced the fondest memory of all when he found the back of the net on a power play with 44.6 seconds left in the fourth overtime at USAir Arena in Landover, Md. But before that there was plenty to remember: Starting Penguins goalie Tom Barrasso leaving after just one period with back spasms; Mario Lemieux uncommonly losing his cool and gone a period later when he was ejected for fighting near the end of the second; Ken Wregget, filling in for Barrasso, halting a rare penalty shot by Washington’s Joe Juneau in the second overtime; and surely there were plenty more if you have a few hours to kill. It was a roller-coaster of a contest from start to finish, now referred to by many Pittsburghers simply as The Pajama Game. “I remember looking up and saying, ‘Geez, we’re almost going to play until midnight,’ ” Penguins center Ron Francis was quoted a couple days later. “Then it was 1 o’clock. Then it was 2 o’clock. Then it was like, 2:30.” From the other side, the loss, of course, stung. “I don’t think I have words to describe it,” Capitals coach Jim Schoenfeld told The Washington Post. “Two courageous teams. They were one shot better. It’s a big emotional lift for the team that won. I’m sure the Penguin guys could go out and play it again, they’re so high.” That seems like a long shot.
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