SI Flashback: Stanley Cup 1991
Pittsburgh over Minnesota in six games
Conn Smythe winner: Mario Lemieux, Pittsburgh
The Stanley Cup had eluded the Pittsburgh Penguins for 23 years and Mario Lemieux for seven. Now both are champions
By Jay Greenberg
A franchise that suffered through nearly a quarter century of incompetence, that once had its office doors padlocked by the Internal Revenue Service and that in 1984 placed its last hope for survival in the hands of an 18-year-old named Mario Lemieux saw its entire sorry history smoothed over with Zamboni-like precision last Saturday night. Led by Lemieux, the Pittsburgh Penguins won the Stanley Cup by routing the Minnesota North Stars 8-0 in Game 6 of the final series. Afterward, Lemieux was awarded the Conn Smythe Trophy as the MVP of the playoffs. Then, as proud as any captain who ever held the Cup aloft -- and, at 6 ft. 4 in., taller than most of them -- he hoisted it as high as it has ever been hoisted.
Certainly few players have ever been required to lift a franchise the way Lemieux was asked to lift the Penguins, who until this season had not advanced beyond the second round in postseason play. "There wasn't going to be hockey in Pittsburgh anymore if not for Mario," said goalie Tom Barrasso. "And we wouldn't have won the Cup without him." ...
Yet Lemieux's emergence as the game's premier talent while Wayne Gretzky was still near his peak offended large portions of the hockey world. It seemed impossible that such a gifted player could come along and challenge Gretzky's accomplishments so soon. Denial was a common reaction: There was no room for another player of Gretzky's caliber until the Great One's career had started to wind down. In addition, Lemieux, a reluctant and tepid interview, has suffered in off-the-ice comparisons to the outgoing Gretzky and to the St. Louis Blues' effervescent Brett Hull, who has emerged over the past two seasons as the NHL's top goal scorer.
Moreover, Gretzky won four Stanley Cups while with the Edmonton Oilers and brought the moribund Los Angeles Kings to life ...
The criticism "has to have hurt him a little," said defenseman Paul Coffey, one of Lemieux's closest friends on the Penguins, "but I know it would hurt him more if he had thought his teammates believed any of that stuff. He was going to hear it until he won a Stanley Cup. It was unfair, but that's just the way it goes."
It went that way even in Game 1 of the finals, in which Lemieux scored a shorthanded goal but nonetheless faced raised eyebrows after the North Stars recovered to win 5-4. Not enough? Then how about that marvelous goal in Game 2 at Pittsburgh's Civic Arena ...
Two nights later at the Met Center, the same Lemieux who had left North Stars tumbling all over the ice as if their skate laces had been tied together, couldn't unfasten his own. Lemieux, who reported to the rink with stiffness in his back, tested it during warmups and decided he couldn't play. The spasms -- which the Penguins insist are not related to the back surgery Lemieux underwent in July 1990 or to the subsequent infection that forced him to miss the first 50 games of this season -- usually subside within a few hours if Lemieux doesn't try to play through them. Hoping to get Lemieux back for Game 4, the Penguins didn't push him to take the ice, and the result was predictable: Minnesota won 3-1 to take a 2-1 series lead ...
Most doubts about his ability to continue in the series were removed [in Game 4] when he whisked in a goalmouth setup by Mark Recchi to climax a three-goal burst that gave Pittsburgh a 3-0 lead after only 2:58 of the first period. With Lemieux dishing out more than his share of bumps and getting to many of the loose pucks, Pittsburgh, which would prevail 5-3, survived a Minnesota rally and a five-minute penalty late in the third period before Bourque put the game away with an empty-net goal.
It was apparent in the first two shifts of Game 5 in Pittsburgh that Lemieux understood that the series was now his to win. In the first period, he went on a feeding frenzy. After Penguin defenseman Larry Murphy shot the puck wide of Minnesota goalie Jon Casey, Lemieux grabbed the carom off the boards and went backhand-to-forehand to sweep the puck across the goal line before Casey could get to the post. With the score 2-0, Lemieux skated past defenseman Shawn Chambers and Dave Gagner to create a 2-on-1 at the Minnesota blue line and then led Recchi perfectly with a backhand pass. Recchi converted with a bull's-eye over Casey's left shoulder. Later, Recchi made the score 4-0 by hitting the top of the net again, this time off a rebound created by Lemieux jamming at the cage. But as in the previous game, Pittsburgh squandered most of its lead and needed a late goal, this time from Troy Loney, to escape with a victory ...
With Lemieux having missed so many regular-season games, the Penguins had been conditioned to playing -- and winning -- without their best player. They also had been toughened by the late-season acquisitions of center Ron Francis and defenseman Ulf Samuelsson. Recchi and Kevin Stevens gave Lemieux the scoring support he had lacked in his early years in Pittsburgh. The defense, with Coffey mostly a power-play specialist in the finals because of his injured jaw, was an unlikely concoction of discards, but it somehow got the job done. And Barrasso, after returning from his injury midway through the Patrick Division finals against the Washington Capitals, was superb.
So a lot of Penguins helped create the occasion, but it was Lemieux who rose to it. The long arms of the best player -- in the series and on the planet -- carried the Stanley Cup to Pittsburgh.
They said it ..."It seemed like anything that was within 20 feet [Lemieux] reached," said Minnesota's Dave Gagner. "When somebody that big and that good wants to win that badly, there isn't much you can do."
Issue date: June 3, 1991