The bottom line: The Penguins are neither as good as their 7-0 start would indicate nor as ragged as they looked against Hartford and New Jersey in consecutive 5-2 and 8-6 losses early last week. Still, that startling start has had one lasting benefit. It has turned a football town's attention to hockey, a major alteration in the Steel City.
Three of the Pens' first seven home games have been sellouts, and the average attendance at Civic Arena has been 13,858, compared with a franchise-high 12,576 last season. Sporting goods stores are suddenly calling the Penguin offices for team paraphernalia, and local bars are looking for jerseys and pennants to hang on the walls. And at a Meet the Penguins bash at Chauncy's, a nightclub, bouncers had to turn fans away. A few years ago, free drinks and limo service wouldn't have been enough to draw a crowd. Perhaps the most telling sign of all: At the recent Steelers-Bengals game, four people showed up at Three Rivers Stadium dressed as Penguins—not merely in Penguin uniforms but costumed like the namesake bird.
The Penguins broke from the chute on the opening night of the season by overcoming a three-goal deficit against the Washington Capitals in Landover, Md. "You're down three against the Caps and you've generally had it," says defenseman Mantha. "But the way we came back to win that game [5-4] set the tone. We were still flying from that one for the next four games."
The Pens will admit that for one charmed stretch they made—and received—every conceivable break. Of those seven straight victories, they won three in overtime (against the Rangers, Kings and Sabres)—all on the first shot of the extra period. And they came from behind in six of their first eight wins. Lemieux had back-to-back five-point games against Buffalo and New Jersey, while Bodger topped his goal output for all of 1984-85 with five during the win streak.
"It was incredible around here; the city was buzzing," says Simpson. "You'd go places and people would know you were a hockey player. That never used to happen. You'd look at the papers, and we'd be on the front page. The way the Pirates and Steelers have been going, the door was open for us...and we walked right in."
But Pittsburgh is still a football town. To fill Three Rivers, the Steelers need only show up. To fill Civic Arena, the Penguins must win. The fast start was like living a fantasy, but honeymoons can be quickly followed by bitter divorces. Very simply, the Penguins must make the playoffs for the first time in five years or take a hike. Financially and emotionally the team is on an alltime high, but the rumors, unfounded ones, persist that the franchise will move to Hamilton, Ont.
"After missing the playoffs by two points last year, this becomes a make-or-break year," says Ruskowski. "No ifs, ands or buts. We can't keep telling people we're going to make it and then let them down." Based on the early returns in the Patrick, a .500 effort the rest of the way should be more than enough. The Devils have improved but are still very young, as are the rebuilding Islanders, and the Rangers are hardly a juggernaut.
Says Ruskowski: "There are no excuses this season."