Did it really happen? Did the Pittsburgh Penguins win the 1991 Stanley Cup championship twenty long years ago? Did the Minnesota North Stars really upset the first and second overall teams, then the defending Cup champions, in the three rounds leading up to the finals? Did Pittsburgh really surprise the New Jersey Devils, Washington Capitals, and Boston Bruins en route to their first Finals appearance?
The answer of course, is yes. Time has a habit of wearing away at our memories, but some stand out for life. And while the memories of a hockey championship may seem like a trivial thing compared to some memories we could hold, they remain no less precious.
For Penguin fans who had suffered through years of last place finishes, the 1991 Cup run was a magical run. It was full of memories, from “the save” by Frank Pietrangelo against the Devils, to Tom Barrasso giving the Capitals fits in the final three games of Round 2, the 1991 Cup erased years of bad memories in two spectacular months, ending on a unforgettable May 25 evening when the Penguins dumped the North Stars 8-0 in the decisive Game 6.
I was 13 years old. Never before had hockey taken on such a surreal experience for me and a few other (rare) Pens fans in Grade 8. As my friend Chris Arnburg and I watched, the Penguins elevated their play and we could finally celebrate (much to the chagrin of our friends) as Penguins fans. In some ways, the 1991 Cup run brought us to a height where we were the envy of all our hockey fan friends. Here in Nova Scotia, most hockey fans are Montreal, Boston, or Toronto fans. There are very few Pittsburgh fans in Nova Scotia (now there are lots of Sidney Crosby fans, but very few true Pittsburgh Penguin fans). During the 80s, the Edmonton Oilers rose to new heights of popularity, due to five Cups in seven years, so there were lots of Oilers fans at this time as well. But there were very few Penguin fans.
May 25, 1991, was a Saturday, clear and warm. I knew that morning that the Penguins were riding momentum and I waited all day for Game 6 to start. I also knew Minnesota was a stubborn team, and that a possible Game 7 could be played Monday night in Pittsburgh. Game 6 would be played in the Met Center in Minnesota, where the North Stars were almost unbeatable. I don’t know what the feeling was among the Penguins players, but I knew I was nervous. And as luck would have it, the heat brought on a migraine, so I spent most of the afternoon sleeping off the dreaded headache. It cleared up in time for Game 6. With homemade milkshake in hand, I settled into my hockey chair (yes, I had a hockey chair), not knowing what to expect, but knowing it should be a close game.
Boy, was I wrong!
At the end of the 1st, Pittsburgh led 3-0 on goals by Ulf Samuelsson, Mario Lemieux, and Joey Mullen. After 40 minutes, the Penguins led 6-0, with goals by Bob Errey, Ron Francis, and Mullen’s second. The third ended, 8-0, with goals by Jim Paek and Larry Murphy finishing the scoring. Tom Barrasso finished with 39 saves, and Lemieux finished with the Conn Smythe trophy as playoff MVP, notching an incredible 44 points in the playoffs. With each goal, my eyes grew wider, and when the final buzzer sounded, I jumped off my chair, able to celebrate something most Penguins fans dreamed would never happen, as only a year ago they missed the playoffs completely, and Lemieux starting the season with a career threatening back injury. It had been a long but rewarding two months, as watching the Penguins deep into May was a whole new experience.
The Penguins doubled the pleasure in 1992, with their second straight Cup win. But it was the magic of 1991 that primed us fans for the 1992 Cup win. It was a playoffs that exist in our memories as Pens fans, and always will.
Sports memories may not rate the same to everyone. But in 1991, Pens fans from all over were able to watch the best hockey played that year. Lemieux’s absolutely amazing goal in Game 2 of the Finals united the hockey world in finally recognizing Lemieux’s ability and leadership. He would not be denied.
Neither would we as fans. Happy 20th anniversary!