Great moments in Pittsburgh sports history: 2010-present

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 the last of a five-part series, we look at the top moments from 2010 to today. Past: Early days, 1970-1989, 1990-2004, 2005-2009.

One for the Flower | June 14, 2017 | Steph Chambers/Post-Gazette

The Penguins’ title defense in 2017 looked to be in trouble before it even began. Starting goalie Matt Murray was injured in warmups immediately before Game 1 of the first-round series against Columbus, pressing Marc-Andre Fleury — still relegated to backup duty — into action at a moment’s notice. And boy, did he rise to the occasion.

A hero of the 2009 Stanley Cup run, Fleury looked like his old self in leading the Penguins to series wins against the Blue Jackets and Washington Capitals. Murray eventually re-assumed the starting role as the Penguins then rolled past Ottawa and Nashville to become the NHL’s first back-to-back champion of the salary cap era, but Fleury’s performance in the clutch solidified his place as one of the most popular players in team history.

For that reason, the subsequent parade became as much a celebration of Fleury’s Penguins career as anything else. It was clear his days in Pittsburgh were numbered, as salary cap considerations made him the logical candidate to head to Las Vegas in the NHL’s expansion draft. And so teammates and fans sent him off a hero. He was mobbed on the parade route, then shared one more hoisting of the Cup with Murray on the stage at Point State Park.

If it wasn’t a perfect ending for a Pittsburgh career, it was pretty close.

A Merry Christmas at Heinz Field | December 25, 2016 | Matt Freed/Post-Gazette

Antonio Brown is known mostly for his splashy touchdowns, but a scrappy one is probably his most famous.

The AFC North Division title was on the line when the Steelers welcomed the rival Baltimore Ravens to Heinz Field on Christmas Day 2016, and the game was more of a dogfight than the home team was hoping it would be. The teams swapped leads four times before the Steelers found themselves trailing, 27-24, with less than 15 seconds to play. That’s when Brown made the play known as the “Immaculate Extension.”

On a second-and-goal play from the 4-yard line, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger dropped back to pass and quickly found Brown on a short route. The only problem? Brown wasn’t in the end zone. Baltimore defenders swarmed him at the 1-yard line, and it looked as if he was about to go down short of the goal line — bad news for the Steelers, as they probably wouldn’t have been able to stop the clock in time to run another play.

That’s when Brown took things into his own hands. Literally. The receiver leaned forward and reached the ball over the end line for a touchdown, even as the Ravens tackled the rest of his body short. Heinz Field erupted as the Steelers went ahead, won the game moments later and added another division championship to their ledger.

42-39 | September 10, 2016 | Matt Freed/Post-Gazette

Pitt and Penn State did not meet on the football field from 2000 to 2016, causing many to question whether the two schools were still true rivals. Their answer when they finally lined up to face each other at Heinz Field two years ago? “Um, yeah.”

First James Conner and Pitt’s running game dominated the Nittany Lions to take an early 28-7 lead. Then counterpart Saquon Barkley and quarterback Trace McSorley brought Penn State roaring back to close the deficit to three points late in the fourth quarter. The near-constant haymakers electrified the crowd of 69,983, believed to be the largest for any sporting event in the city’s history. And they set the stage for Ryan Lewis to be the hero.

Three plays after Penn State’s DaeSean Hamilton dropped what looked to be a sure game-winning touchdown pass, the Panthers defensive back ended the Lions’ final threat by intercepting McSorley in the back of the end zone. Pitt’s partisans roared as their team killed the clock to seal a 42-39 victory that wasn’t an upset but felt like one given Penn State’s perceived haughty attitude about an in-state series that dates to 1893.

The loss proved costly for the Lions, who rebounded from the loss to win the Big Ten championship but fell just short of a selection for the College Football Playoff. And you can bet Pitt fans will be reminding them of that fact for a long time. That’s what rivals do.

Mike Sullivan leads Penguins revival | June 15, 2016 | Steve Mellon/Post-Gazette

The Penguins lost some of their mojo after winning the Stanley Cup in 2009. Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin remained among the best players in the league, but injuries and rough performances in the playoffs prevented them from reaching their championship heights of the past. General manager Jim Rutherford tried to shake things up in the summer of 2015 by acquiring star winger Phil Kessel from Toronto. But although Kessel was effective, the team as a whole couldn’t shake its malaise and fired coach Mike Johnston.

That’s when everything changed.

Mike Suillivan was promoted from the team’s farm club in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton to replace Johnston, and the product on the ice quickly improved. Malkin and especially Crosby thrived in the new coach’s system, and prospects who followed Sullivan from the minors — now-household names like Bryan Rust and Conor Sheary — brought a needed infusion of youthful energy. The Penguins charged from outside the playoff picture to a second-place finish in the Metropolitan Division.

Playoff series wins against the New York Rangers, Washington Capitals and Tampa Bay Lightning followed. The “HBK” line of Kessel, Carl Hagelin and Nick Bonino earned fame with some dominant performances, and Crosby was named playoff MVP after leading his team to a six-game victory against the San Jose Sharks in the Stanley Cup final. It was the culmination of an impressive transformation led by a coach who was only getting started.

C(l)utch | July 11, 2015 | Peter Diana/Post-Gazette

The 2015 Pirates were really good. They also didn’t have a lot of hope for most of the first half of that season. The St. Louis Cardinals had dominated the NL Central Division and held an imposing 5½-game lead when they traveled to PNC Park for a three-game set on July 10.

After Gerrit Cole pitched the Pirates to a 5-2 win in the first game of the series, Game 2 turned into a marathon. The Pirates forced extras with a two-run rally in the eighth, then matched a Cardinals run in the 10th. Things were looking dire again in the 14th, though, when a Jhonny Peralta single gave the Cardinals a 5-4 lead.

That’s when Andrew McCutchen turned the thing into a race.

With Neil Walker standing on first base after a leadoff walk, McCutchen promptly cracked a homer 416 feet to center field. PNC Park was whipped into a frenzy as McCutchen crossed the plate to finish what felt like quite a statement of a walk-off victory.

The Pirates rallied for another win the following night and went into the All-Star break trailing the Cardinals by just 2½ games. They were back in a race they ultimately lost, but that moment sparked a Pirates team that went onto win a whopping 98 games for the first time since 1991.

Exorcising the demons | Oct. 1, 2013 | Peter Diana/Post-Gazette

We’ll never truly know what was going through Johnny Cueto’s head. We know that the PNC Park crowd was relentlessly chanting the Cincinnati starter’s name in the second inning of the 2013 NL wild-card game after he gave up a homer to Marlon Byrd. We know he dropped the baseball amid those stadium-wide jeers. But we don’t know for sure how rattled he was before the Pirates’ Russell Martin hit a homer on the very next pitch.

It also doesn’t really matter. It was never really about Cueto anyway. As Martin’s blast soared over the left field wall, the deafening roar that followed was the frustration of the 20 losing seasons that preceded it being ejected into a warm October night.

For two decades, all the city wanted was a winner. The Pirates finally delivered with what became a 6-2 win against the Reds to advance to the NLDS. And although the postseason run ended with a series loss against St. Louis a little more than a week later, “the streak” was over, and Martin had helped a city remember how much it could love a baseball team.

David beats Goliath | March 19, 2013 | Pam Panchak/Post-Gazette

It was strange enough that Kentucky was playing in Robert Morris’ Sewall Center at all on March 19, 2013. Just days earlier, both teams had NCAA tournament aspirations. Instead, the Colonials and defending national champion Wildcats were relegated to facing each other in the NIT. And with top-seeded Kentucky’s Rupp Arena set to stage NCAA tournament games, Moon native and Wildcats coach John Calipari opted to play something of a homecoming game at eighth-seeded Robert Morris rather than in an auxiliary facility on his own campus.

The outcome was even weirder.

With the Sewall Center packed to capacity, the Colonials jumped out to an early 10-0 lead and stayed ahead of Kentucky for almost the entire game. Guard Lucky Jones led the way with 15 points, and teammate Mike McFadden hit two free throws to give Robert Morris the lead with just seconds remaining. Moments later, a 3-point attempt by Kentucky’s Kyle Wiltjer missed, and Robert Morris held on for the biggest win in school history.

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