Great teams don't win the Stanley Cup once. Great teams win it five times in seven seasons, like the Edmonton Oilers in 1984 through '90. Or four times in a row, like the New York Islanders in '80 through '83 and the Montreal Canadiens in '76 through '79. So, are the Pittsburgh Penguins a great team? "When you win once, people wonder," says Pittsburgh forward Kevin Stevens. "When you win twice, it's no fluke."
The Penguins proved they were no one-year wonders by completing a Stanley Cup finals sweep of the Chicago Black-hawks with a wild 6-5 victory Monday night at Chicago Stadium. They dismantled and demoralized the Hawks, winning pretty with speed and finesse in one game, winning ugly with strength and toughness in the next. Their best players were clearly better than Chicago's best players. Penguin Tom Barrasso proved to be a classic big-game goaltender. No Hawk could skate with 20-year-old Jaromir Jagr. And Chicago most certainly had no one to counter the world's top player, Pittsburgh center Mario Lemieux.
Lemieux, the playoff MVP for the second consecutive year, scored four goals in the first two games of the finals. His defense—yes, his defense, in the form of some sensational poke-checking with his long-distance reach—contributed significantly to the 1-0 Game 3 win. His 34 points in the playoffs led all postseason scorers, even though he missed five games with a broken hand. His five game-winning goals tied a playoff record.
But the sound Lemieux heard in the background throughout the playoffs was not the roar of appreciation. Instead it was the rattle of ancient skeletons behind doors he thought had been sealed in the spring of 1991, after he had led the Penguins to their first Stanley Cup. The head rattler was Chicago coach Mike Keenan, who tried desperately to get the attention of league officials with a withering attack on Lemieux during a press conference in Pittsburgh before Game 2.
Keenan accused Lemieux of repeatedly taking pratfalls after incidental contact with opposing players. "I can't respect Mario for diving," Keenan said. "The best player in the game is embarrassing himself and embarrassing the game." The aroma of sour grapes was unmistakable: Chicago defenseman Steve Smith had been called for hooking Lemieux with 18 seconds left in Game 1, and five seconds into the subsequent power play Super Mario flicked a rebound past Blackhawk goaltender Ed Belfour to win the game 5-4. It was a crushing defeat for Chicago, which had led 4-1 in the second period.
"I actually didn't dive that time," Lemieux said. Other times, many other times, he has tumbled to the ice hoping to attract a sympathetic whistle. Early in his career Lemieux was excoriated behind his back by opposing players, coaches and front-office types who saw his flopping as unseemly behavior for a would-be superstar in a sport that likes its rough edges razor sharp. After Lemieux led the Penguins to a Cup, the criticism faded, only to be revived by Keenan in a pointed attempt to influence the referees in a series that, from Keenan's perspective, had already gone awry.
As usual, Lemieux played it close to the sweater. "No comment," he said after scoring the winning goal in Game 2. a 3-1 Pittsburgh victory. Then he smiled and added, "For now."
The Chicago camp insisted later in the week that no disrespect to Lemieux had been intended. "We don't mean to cast anything negative toward Mario," said Darryl Sutter, the Blackhawks' associate coach. "We're just asking the question, Is there another set of rules, unwritten rules, that are there for Mario and Mario alone? Based on what we've seen in this series, the answer is yes."
The NHL offered all the usual denials and ducked the substance of the charges. Is Lemieux a protected player, as Keenan suggested? Should penalties be called at the lightest touch from goons who could be out to break or, at least, bruise the best player in the league?
The unanswered questions revived other unanswered questions. Should David Shaw, formerly of the New York Rangers, have received, as he did, a 12-game suspension for clubbing Lemieux in the chest with a stick three seasons ago? Should the Rangers' Adam Graves have gotten four games for breaking Lemieux's left hand in the second round of this year's playoffs with a slash? And at the bottom of the slag heap, the oldest, nastiest question of all: Does Mario make the most of his skills, or does he dog it sometimes?