Wounded Penguins Rally Past Rangers
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.
It’s tough enough to face a No. 1 seed in the playoffs. It’s even tougher with two of your top three point-getters out of the lineup due to injury. Talk about adversity.
This is exactly the task that the 1991-92 Pittsburgh Penguins faced in the second round (Patrick Division finals) of that year’s playoffs.
After coming back from a 3-1 series deficit against Washington, the Penguins headed to the Big Apple to face the top seeded New York Rangers. The Blueshirts had captured the President’s Trophy after posting the league’s best record (50-25-5), and were Stanley Cup favorites that spring.
The first contest went well for Pittsburgh, as they went into Madison Square Garden and put together a 4-2 victory. It was the team’s fourth straight win.
“Game 1, we won pretty handedly against the Rangers in New York,” said former Penguins assistant coach Pierre McGuire. “We got all the matchups. I was changing the defense, Scotty (Bowman) was changing the forwards, and we dominated the matchups in that game.”
Two nights later, the score was the same, but not in the Penguins’ favor. Not only was there a loss on the scoresheet, there were two major losses up front. Mario Lemieux was slashed hard by the Rangers’ Adam Graves, breaking the captain’s hand.
“You never want to see that happen,” said former forward Kevin Stevens of the slash on Lemieux. “That was a hard whack, but things happen in the game. Playoff games are rough and tough.”
The Penguins also lost forward Joe Mullen after a collision with Kris King. Both were said to be out indefinitely.
“Anytime you get injured like I did, and seeing a guy like Mario go down in the same game, there could be time for a panic,” Mullen said.
Not only had the team lost for the first time in four games, they would have to find a way to beat the top seed without two of their star players. They needed something.
The Penguins lost Game 3 back in Pittsburgh and were behind, 2-1, in the series. They found themselves trailing 4-2 in the third period of Game 4. But that’s when the momentum of the series turned in Pittsburgh’s favor.
Ron Francis, who had picked up two goals and an assist in Game 3, stepped up when his team most needed him.
Pittsburgh killed a five-minute penalty in the third, and shortly after it expired, Francis, who already had one goal in Game 4, unleashed a slapper from just outside the blue line that beat Rangers goaltender Mike Richter. The harmless shot gave the Penguins life.
“You have little things that happen throughout the course of the game or a series, for that matter, that change the ebb and flow of the series,” former goaltender Ken Wregget said. “(Francis’ goal) definitely gave a little pat on the back to all of us guys. We knew that if we just plug away and keep working hard, good things will happen. The guys came right back, and they had a lot of character, a whole lot of character.”
Troy Loney tied the game at 4-4 late in the third, and less than three minutes into the extra session, Francis completed a hat trick by tipping in a Larry Murphy shot past Richter. From that point, the club never looked back.
“When it comes to guys like Ronnie Francis, he’s a Hall-of-Famer for a reason,” former forward Bryan Trottier said. “You look at the scoresheet at the end of the game and he’s all over it. Everybody who played against him and played with him knows he’s an impact player.”
It wasn’t just Francis who stepped up his game in the absence of Lemieux and Mullen. The team used the injuries as a rallying point for themselves, with each skater picking up the pace of his game.
“I think it was (an opportunity) for some of the guys that had been called up, some of the guys that had been around for a while, but weren’t really playing a lot,” Wregget said. “Every player (wants) to have that opportunity and take advantage of it. We had that opportunity and the guys did a great job.”
Jaromir Jagr scored two goals, including one on a penalty shot, back in New York for a 3-2 win in Game 5, and the Penguins finished things off at the Igloo in Game 6, defeating the Rangers 5-1.
“It’s amazing how the team did,” Trottier said. “They were able to hold the fort or pull out a victory or man the post till we got (Lemieux) back.”
The injuries were just one more hurdle to overcome in a season that was full of them. The team didn’t give up, providing their captain with a chance to return.
“I think one of the things that helped us overcome in (the Rangers) series was the respect the players had for Mario,” McGuire said. “They didn’t want to let him down because he was an injured player. He didn’t play in that series again, but in the next series against Boston he did. We set an NHL record, we won 11 games in a row, and the respect the players had for Mario was a big part of that.”