Players-Only Meeting Sparked Big Change During '92 Run
In 1992 the Penguins won their second of back-to-back Stanley Cups after sweeping the Chicago Blackhawks. To mark the 20th anniversary of that title run, pittsburghpenguins.com will be reliving some of the key moments from the 1991-92 season and playoffs.
Throughout a championship postseason run, there are often a number of defining moments that help contribute to a club’s success, and ultimately, coming away with 35 pounds of silver.
A players-only meeting in April of 1992 is easily classified as one of those moments. Without it, the ’92 Penguins may have never made it past the first round.
“It was a case of making an adjustment which was spoken in volumes to the team in the ability to play differently,” defenseman Larry Murphy said. “We were shooting ourselves in the foot and we realized that. Fortunately, an adjustment was made.”
The Capitals were the team’s opponent in the first round of the playoffs that spring, and the Penguins found themselves in a hole after Game 4. Washington outscored Pittsburgh 20-11 in the first four contests and had taken a 3-1 lead in the series. The Penguins had to tighten down defensively in order to simply win another contest and stay alive, let alone having a chance to force a Game 7.
“We were struggling because we weren’t able to keep the puck out of our own net,” then-head coach Scotty Bowman said. “I said to Mario (Lemieux) at the time, ‘We’re going to have to tighten up if we’re going to have any success in this series. We’re going to have to play a much more defensive style and wait for our breaks; we should be able to score enough,’ and Mario took it from there.”
The Penguins captain, along with Ron Francis and other team leaders, held a players only meeting prior to Game 5, implementing a new defensive system in an attempt to contain the Washington offense.
“It was Mario that went in the room and sold the players,” former assistant coach Pierre McGuire said. “That’s where I learned about leadership. Mario Lemieux proved to me he was one of the best leaders of all time just how he handled that whole situation. He was unbelievable.”
The system that Lemieux sold his teammates on is known as the 1-4 delay, or a more conservative version of a neutral zone trap. One forechecker entered the offensive zone, while the two remaining forwards and two defensemen hung back at the near blueline, making it tough for the Capitals to transition into the Penguins’ defensive zone.
“It was just really kind of neat how we’d squeeze them off and force them to dump the puck to Tommy (Barrasso’s) forehand,” forward Bryan Trottier said. “Tommy would stop it and fire it out because Tommy could handle the puck. He could rip the puck and kind of catch them on their forecheck and it worked.”
It did more than just work; if it hadn’t been implemented the morning of Game 5, there likely wouldn’t have been a Game 6 back in Pittsburgh.
“It was the morning of (Game 5), and I remember Rick Kehoe going up to the blackboard and explaining to the guys what the 1-4 was,” Trottier said. “It was really very on the moment, spur of the minute, fly by the seat of your pants -- and it worked.”
The Penguins would win that night in Washington by a 5-2 final. It was clear that the new system had done the job, and the Pens went on to outscore the Caps 11-6 in Games 5 and 6.
Game 7 took place back in the nation’s Capital, and thanks to tallies from Lemieux, Jaromir Jagr and Joe Mullen, the Penguins defeated Washington 3-1, ironically erasing a series deficit of the same tally en-route to knocking off the Caps.
“Joey Mullen was huge in Game 7,” McGuire said. “Ronnie Francis was unbelievable in Game 7 and Gordie Roberts played fantastically well on defense with Bob Errey as a left winger helping him out against Dino Ciccarelli.”
Afterwards, the assistant coach had an inkling that coming away with that series was the start of something special once again.
“I knew right then, it felt just like it did in ‘91,” McGuire said. “It felt like we had a real legitimate chance to win the Cup and it’s an amazing feeling. You’ve been through it once the year before, and it’s an amazing feeling to go through it again.”