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Looking back at the last Penguins team that won the Cup

TSN.ca Staff

5/21/2008 3:20:28 PM

With a young and exciting lineup led by 2007 Hart Trophy winner Sidney Crosby and 2008 Hart Trophy candidate Evgeni Malkin, hockey fans and pundits can't help but compare this year's Pittsburgh Penguins to the Edmonton Oilers of the 1980's.

But for Penguins fans, there's only one comparison that counts for the moment - the Pittsburgh team that last won a championship in 1992.

Led by captain Mario Lemieux, the Penguins captured their second consecutive Stanley Cup title, winning the championship in a four-game sweep against the Chicago Blackhawks.

It was a crowning achievement for a franchise that was once considered the laughing stock of the National Hockey League. With superb talents like Lemieux, Jaromir Jagr, Rick Tocchet, Joe Mullen, Tom Barrasso and Ron Francis, the Penguins built a winning lineup that could rival any other in playoff history.

NHL on TSN analyst Pierre McGuire, who was an assistant coach with that championship club, agrees wholeheartedly.

"If you had to put that team together today, that payroll without a cap would have been over $100 million," he said.

"It was all orchestrated around Mario. We had some amazing role players in Bob Errey and Phil Bourque, Bryan Trottier and Troy Loney - guys who never got enough credit. Ulf Samuelsson never got enough credit because of his role as a fearless defender. The biggest thing about that team was its character. Sure, we had star power with Tocchet, Francis, Kevin Stevens and Jaromir Jagr, but those stars had character too. Stevens had it, Tocchet played with a broken jaw - they were unbelievable."

While it's easy to look back in hindsight and wax poetic about that mighty Penguins team, winning a second straight championship was never easy considering the wide range of changes they went through.

Forward Mark Recchi, who led the team in scoring the previous season and was an integral part of their 1991 championship team, was traded to the Philadelphia Flyers for Tocchet, defenceman Kjell Samuelsson and goalie Ken Wregget. Future Hall of Fame defenceman Paul Coffey - another key player from the 1991 team - was moved to the Los Angeles Kings in return for Brian Benning, Jeff Chychrun and a first-round draft pick.

But the biggest and most difficult change was behind the bench. Ill health forced the beloved Bob Johnson to step down as the head coach before the season, and the hockey world was stunned by his death from cancer just a couple of months later.

The Penguins needed someone to maintain their winning ways, and turned to five-time Stanley Cup champion Scotty Bowman. The Hall of Fame coach's approach was a stark contrast from the style that the late-great Johnson employed just a few months earlier.

"The guys knew who the boss was," said McGuire. "It was a rough year, they went from a player-friendly Bob Johnson - who was an unbelievable coach - to a demanding coach who was set in his ways - his way or the highway. That was a major adjustment for a team that was coming off a Cup win in 1991. No one was going to out-duel Scotty, but they knew that when he was behind the bench he gave them every opportunity to win."

And the best opportunity for the defending Stanley Cup champions came right in the opening week of the 1992 playoffs.

"Scotty got a lot of credibility for us coming back from a 3-1 deficit in the first round against Washington," explained McGuire. "Scotty helped formulate a game plan that required a huge adjustment from both the players and the coaches. But it enabled us to come from behind and win."

It didn't get any easier after that exciting comeback, as the Penguins were faced with another obstacle in Round 2 against Mark Messier and the New York Rangers.

"It was tough when Mario went down in Game 2 with a broken hand from an Adam Graves slash," said McGuire. "We lost Game 3 in overtime and gave them a 2-1 series lead."

Cue another turning point for the Penguins.

"We never lost another game after that," said McGuire. "That's when we knew things were coming together. Scotty got a lot of credibility for the way he orchestrated himself behind the bench."

The Penguins then swept the Adams Division-winning Boston Bruins en route to their second straight Cup final. And while their match-up against Mike Keenan's Chicago Blackhawks looked easy in the playoff record books, each game was a spirited battle that could have gone either way. In an NHL game that was not yet introduced to the mainstream style of traps and neutral zone locks, three of the Penguins' four straight wins were decided by just one goal.

"It wasn't easy," said McGuire. "We had to come from behind from 3-0 in Game 1, with Mario and Larry Murphy carrying the team on their backs. We had a huge lead in Game 4 and they put Dominik Hasek in for Ed Belfour and they almost completed a big comeback. But our confidence level was high because everyone knew their role. Ulf Samuelsson knew his role. Paul Stanton, Jimmy Paek, Gordie Roberts and Kjell Samuelsson knew their roles. And there was never any complaining about the roles they had to play. We played a straight match-up game - Scotty ran the forwards, I ran the defence and players had to pay attention to what had to be done."

And knowing each other's roles could be a good lesson for today's Penguins squad, which McGuire can compare to the 1992 championship team.

"The similarities between these two teams are the young skill," he explained. "Jagr and even Mario were very young players then. Kevin Stevens was also a very young player. We had tremendous young skill on those Penguins teams much like this team. Malkin isn't as big as Mario was and Crosby isn't as Francis was, but they're very similar in the way they play."