Great moments in Pittsburgh sports history: 2005-2009

The Post-Gazette’s Out of the Archives: Sports is a photographic tour through the city’s rich sports history. From the Penguins’ Stanley Cup championship this past June to the Pirates’ World Series victory in 1909, fans can both learn by peering decades into the past and relive more recent glory by flipping through dozens of vivid images that bring these iconic moments back to life. The Steelers, Penguins and Pirates are featured prominently, but some of the best moments from the college and high school ranks also make the list that shows why Pittsburgh is one of the best sports towns in America. Today, in Part 4 of a five-part series, we look at the top moments from 2005 to 2009. Past: Early days, 1970-1989, 1990-2004.

Pittsburgh’s new Captain Cup | June 15, 2009 | Michael Henninger/Post-Gazette

Sidney Crosby isn’t a kid anymore, but his first Stanley Cup victory was historic.

Then just 21, he became the youngest captain in league history to hoist the venerable trophy when the Penguins outlasted the Detroit Red Wings to win the NHL’s 2009 championship in a thrilling seven-game series. More impressive? He fell just short of having his name scratched on the Cup a year earlier, when the Red Wings denied the Penguins a title by eliminating them in six games in the final round of the playoffs.

The following year was a different story, though. Teammate Max Talbot scored both markers and goalie Marc-Andre Fleury made a brilliant save as time expired to give their team redemption and their captain a chance to live up to the phenom hype that had followed him since he made his celebrated NHL debut in 2005. He’s been doing it ever since.

Among the giants | March 22, 2009 | Al Behrman/Associated Press

It’s easy to remember Pitt’s 2008-09 season for how it ended, as Villanova’s Scottie Reynolds infamously broke the Panthers’ hearts when he beat them down the court to score the game-winning bucket with just a half-second left in the NCAA tournament East Region final. The journey to that moment was pretty incredible, though.

Led by Big East Player of the Year and Schenley product DeJuan Blair, not only did the Panthers knock off No. 1 Connecticut twice in the regular season, they briefly ascended to the top spot in the polls themselves for the first time in program history. They finished strong, too, racking up a program-record 15 conference wins en route to earning the first NCAA tournament top seed in program history.

And even the tournament itself was a big success. Yes, Pitt fell short of the Final Four, but its win over Xavier in the Sweet 16 produced the program’s first Elite Eight appearance since 1974. It was a season to remember, even if it was an ending fans would rather forget.

A rally for the ages | Feb. 1, 2009 | Peter Diana/Post-Gazette

Everything had to be perfect.

With the Steelers trailing the Arizona Cardinals by three points with less than a minute left in the 2009 Super Bowl, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger rolled to his right and launched a second-and-goal pass in the direction of receiver Santonio Holmes in the end zone.

The throw needed to be placed just so to avoid the three Cardinals defenders in the area. It was. Holmes needed to use every inch of his wingspan to haul in the pass while keeping both feet in bounds to score the touchdown in the back of the end zone. He did.

The result was a go-ahead touchdown and, one of the most iconic plays in franchise history and an NFL record six Super Bowl championships for the Steelers. Holmes was named the game’s MVP, and the next morning, this photo of his celebration was the one splashed across the Post-Gazette’s front page under the headline “Lords of the Rings.”

Taking it outside | Jan. 1, 2008 | Peter Diana/Post-Gazette

The NHL’s Winter Classic is now a staple of the annual hockey schedule, but it was very much an experiment when the Penguins were selected to play in the first one against the Buffalo Sabres on New Year’s Day in 2008. The league had staged just one outdoor game to that point, so no one knew quite what to expect. But in the end, the contest lived up to its name.

The two teams battled hard through snow that fell heavily at times on the Buffalo Bills’ Ralph Wilson Stadium in Orchard Park, N.Y. Wearing powder-blue throwback jerseys for the first time, the Penguins skated to a 1-1 tie through regulation thanks to a first-period goal by Colby Armstrong and solid play in goal by Ty Conklin. Then a scoreless overtime set the stage for Sidney Crosby to make history in the shootout.

Conklin’s save on Maxim Afinogenov kept the shootout tied, 1-1, before Crosby took the ice with a chance to win the game as the Penguins’ third shooter. He skated in slowly on Sabres goalie Ryan Miller, then flicked the puck between Miller’s legs for the game-winning goal. His teammates mobbed him as the snow continued to fall, a fitting precursor to bigger celebrations to come.

13-9 | Dec. 1, 2007 | Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

It’s the score that speaks for itself to Pitt and West Virginia fans.

Panthers fans remember it as the score of the greatest upset win in program history. Pitt was just 4-7 heading into the final weekend of the 2007 season and playing simply for pride against the Mountaineers. West Virginia was 10-1 and ranked second thanks to a deadly offense led by electrifying quarterback Pat White and running back Steve Slaton. Victory in Morgantown was almost unimaginable for Pitt. Until it happened, thanks to 148 yards from star running back LeSean “Shady” McCoy and an epic defensive performance.

Mountaineers fans remember it as the score of the most painful game in program history. Their team appeared to be on the fast track to a date in the national championship game, but their hopes evaporated when White was injured and kicker Pat McAfee missed two field-goal attempts.

Add all of those emotions together and you have the game that defines the Backyard Brawl rivalry to this day.

A comeback before heartbreak | Nov. 23, 2007 | Matt Freed/Post-Gazette

If there’s such a thing as a moral victory in a losing effort, Gateway got it in the WPIAL Class 4A championship against Central Catholic at Heinz Field in 2007.

The Gators trailed the Vikings, 28-13, with barely more than a minute left when things got nutty. First Rob Kalkstein threw an 8-yard touchdown to Corey Brown with 31 seconds left to pull Gateway to within a possession. Then Ryan Lichtenstein recovered an onside kick to give his teammates a chance to tie. And boy, did they ever tie. On the ensuing Gateway possession, Kalkstein threw a pass to receiver Jonathan Pryor. Pryor then pitched to Cam Saddler on a hook-and-lateral play that went for a touchdown. A two-point conversion later and the game was suddenly, stunningly knotted up at the end of regulation.

The lateral play ended up as one of the top plays on “Sportscenter” that night. But the Gators had to hang their hat on their valiant comeback, because it didn’t add up to a victory. The teams traded touchdowns in overtime, but Gateway missed its extra-point try to fall short, 35-34, in what the Post-Gazette’s Mike White called one of the greatest WPIAL championship games in history.

One for the thumb, and the Bus | Feb. 5, 2006 | Peter Diana/Post-Gazette

Few athletes get storybook endings to their careers, but one of the most recognizable players in Steelers history did.

Jerome Bettis was the team’s workhorse at running back for the better part of a decade. He was chosen for six Pro Bowls en route to amassing more yards than all but six players in NFL history. All his resume lacked was a Super Bowl ring, and his teammates delivered one in the 2005 season.

Coming off a mediocre 10-6 regular season, the Steelers ripped off three consecutive road playoff wins to reach the big game, then rode big plays from Willie Parker, Antwaan Randle El and Hines Ward to beat the Seattle Seahawks, 21-10, to claim their fifth championship in Bettis’ hometown of Detroit. Bettis announced he’d retire on the postgame podium, Vince Lombardi Trophy in hand, a fitting last stop for the man nicknamed “the Bus.”

Saving the season | Jan. 15, 2006 | Matt Freed/Post-Gazette

David Volek. Scottie Reynolds. Sid Bream. Indianapolis Colts cornerback Nick Harper almost added his name to that list of Pittsburgh sports villains who crushed the city’s dreams in a single moment. Almost.

Harper was the man who scooped up the football when Jerome Bettis lost a stunning fumble at the end of the Steelers’ 2005 divisional-round playoff game at the Colts’ RCA Dome. The Steelers had advanced the ball to the Indianapolis 2-yard line while holding a 21-18 lead with less than two minutes remaining,

but Bettis lost the ball while trying to score a touchdown that would have sealed the win. Instead, Harper started sprinting the other way, hoping to put his team ahead with a score of his own.

Ben Roethlisberger had other ideas. The Steelers quarterback was deep in the backfield, the only man with a chance to stop Harper. He backpedaled awkwardly but kept Harper in his sights. Harper made a move as the two men converged, but Roethlisberger caught just enough of him to make the touchdown-saving trip tackle.

The Indianapolis offense sputtered on the ensuing possession, and the sixth-seeded Steelers — finally — closed out an upset victory for the ages over mighty Peyton Manning and the top-seeded Colts.

Beating the buzzer | Feb. 26, 2005 | Lake Fong/Post-Gazette

Aliquippa and Beaver Falls are bitter rivals, but there was more than bragging rights at stake when they met at the end of the 2005 season. Both teams wanted to win the WPIAL Class 2A championship, and it took them awhile to settle the title game. Three overtimes, actually.
The Tigers initiated the drama at the end of what looked like a sure defeat — the Quips led by six with less than a minute left. Lance Jeter had an answer, though. After teammate Dom Henderson hit a 3-pointer, Jeter knocked down a dramatic one of his own at the buzzer to send the game to overtime. And he wasn’t done.

The three overtimes that followed his initial heroics went back and forth, with one team taking a lead only for the other to answer. It was an epic struggle that became the longest championship game in WPIAL history. That’s when Jeter put an end to things.

The junior guard beat the buzzer again, this time with a 30-foot bank shot as time expired, to give Beaver Falls its first championship since 1994. He finished with 37 points on 13 of 16 shooting. But more important: He finished as one of the greatest heroes in a rivalry that has been full of them over the years.

Be sure to check out the printed edition of “Great Moments in Pittsburgh Sports History” on May 29.