Mario Lemieux might – might – be able to laugh at this picture and his Teen Wolf playoff beard now, two dozen years after it was taken. But at that moment, there was nothing amusing to the 23-year-old Penguins captain as he faced the press just after his team was jettisoned from the 1989 Stanley Cup playoffs.
The post-season appearance was the first for Pittsburgh’s French-Canadian sauveur and the team’s first since 1982. Led by Lemieux, whose 199-point regular season stands as the franchise’s record and the fifth-most all-time, the Penguins were poised for a deep playoff run after an opening round sweep of the New York Rangers.
Notoriously rugged cross-Commonwealth antagonists the Philadelphia Flyers were the Penguins’ Patrick Division Finals opponents. Pittsburgh opened the series with a 4-3 home victory and the teams traded wins to the tune of a 2-2 series tie.
Then, in Game 5, Lemieux went positively nuclear in a 10-7 win with a five-goal, eight-point night that set or tied four NHL post-season single-game records – most goals in a game, goals in a period (4), points in a period (4) and points in a game – and remains as one of the single greatest playoff performances in hockey history, all while dealing with a nasty neck injury.
The Post-Gazette’s Penguins’ beat writer Tom McMillan, now a vice president with the team, wrote:
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen an athlete come up with as potent a game as he did tonight,” said center Dave Hannan, one of the Penguins’ blue-collar players who stood in awe. “He started so fast, and everyone else just picked it up because they wanted to be a part of it. It was unbelievable. Wow.”
“Lemieux, who couldn’t move his neck when he awoke Monday morning, reported less pain and considerably more range of motion when he showed up at the rink last night. “I felt pretty good,” he said. No kidding.”
With momentum and a 3-2 series lead a trip to the Wales Conference Finals – and perhaps beyond – seemed imminent. But sometimes destiny takes the scenic route.
McMillan wrote:“At least now, Mario Lemieux will shave his playoff beard.”
“It was a scraggly little thing anyway – several weeks worth of determined facial growth that, in the end, reminded us how young these Penguins were. If you can’t put forth a full playoff beard, you’re not quite mature enough to win a Stanley Cup. These things take time…”
“It’s tough to accept right now, but we have to learn from this,” Lemieux said … “Hopefully we can regroup next year and go as far as the finals.”
He was off by a year. The Penguins missed the playoffs the next season, but they’d win two consecutive Stanley Cups after that, with Lemieux earning back to back Conn Smythe trophies – sans playoff beard.