For Pittsburgh fans, excitement is starting to build to a frenzied pitch.
The Penguins are just four wins away from turning the clock back to 1979, to giving Pittsburghers cause for breaking out the “We are Family” records. Okay, maybe not that.
But, Pittsburgh stands a great chance of winning championships in the two greatest sports known to man, surpassing even 1979 when the Steelers and Pirates reigned supreme.
For me, this Penguins run is bringing back memories of 2005 and the Steelers' storied run to the team’s fifth Lombardi trophy. The parallels are striking.
The 2005 Steelers started with sky-high expectations. They had the best regular-sweason record the year before, finishing 15-1 with a rookie quarterback who set a record with a thirteen-game rookie win streak.
But, the 2004 team fell just short, losing to eventual champions New England Patriots in the AFC Championship Game.
The 2009 Penguins also started the season with sky-high expectations. They were one of the best teams in hockey in 2008, and seemed to almost effortlessly advance through the Stanley Cup playoffs en route to the finals.
But, like the Steelers, they fell just short, losing to the big red buzzsaw—also known as the Detroit Red Wings.
In both cases, great Pittsburgh teams were ousted by dynasties loaded with veteran talent.
Expectations couldn’t be higher for the 2005 Steelers or the 2009 Penguins entering the season. Both teams largely returned their corps of key players intact.
Granted, the Penguins lost Marian Hossa and Ryan Malone. But, with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin manning the center line, those losses didn’t seem so important.
Both teams looked primed to make serious title bids. And then the season started.
Despite their best efforts, both teams watched as their seasons started to unravel before their eyes.
The 2005 Steelers posted a dreadful three-game losing streak that dropped their record to 7-5, leaving many to declare the team dead. Put a fork in in them. They were done.
They would need to win their last four games to even have a chance at making the playoffs, and even then, they would need plenty of help.
The Penguins followed the same script this season. Their midseason swoon surpassed even that awful three-game stretch of the Steelers in 2005.
When Michel Therrien was fired, the Penguins were 27-25-5 after getting hammered by the Toronto Maple Leafs, 6-2, in a game they were actually winning heading into the final period. That proved to be the last straw.
They were a dreadful 1-7-1 over their last nine road games leading up to the change. They were a full five points out of the final playoff spot and looked to be already dead.
Plenty of experts rushed to declare the Penguins to be finished, a shell of their team from the previous year. As with the 2005 Steelers, you could put a fork in them. They were done.
The team really didn’t look like it had a pulse. The defense was nonexistent, the powerplay was offensive, and not in a good way, and the whole team lacked passion. They barely looked average, let alone like a team on the cusp of another Cup run.
The Stanley Cup curse was in full effect.
As was the case in 2005, fans were left to scratch their heads and wonder what had gone wrong. How could teams loaded with so much talent look so awful?
But both teams were just setting the stage for dramatic late-season surges.
The Steelers wouldn’t lose again that season. They looked like a different team while barreling through the Chicago Bears, Minnesota Vikings, Cleveland Browns, and Detroit Lions to barely snag that last playoff spot.
That Lions game was the last game I saw at Heinz Field, since I was visiting family that weekend and my dad had scored tickets from work. Even watching that game, there was that unsettling feeling that comes when your team doesn't control its own destiny. But, they got the help they needed.
By the time the playoffs arrived, nobody wanted to play the Steelers. This was fully evident in the Patriots' decision to tank their last game against the Dolphins to slide from the No. 3 slot to the No. 4 slot to dodge the Men of Steel in the wildcard round.
The Penguins were in almost the exact same situation as the Steelers when they made their run to the playoffs. They were on the outside looking in, and needed to make a historic run just to sneak into the playoffs.
The Penguins hired Dan Bylsma to right the ship and made some smart acquisitions in Bill Guerin, Chris Kunitz, and Phillipe Boucher. They also got Sergei Gonchar back from injury. Even with that, most media experts didn’t give them much chance in the days immediately following the Therrien firing—and even the most ardent fans weren’t sure they had it in them.
The Penguins’ record over the rest of the season was an astonishing 18-3-4. They were a completely different team, playing with a passion and fire that seemed to elude them during their slump. They moved from the outside looking in all the way to the No. 4 seed.
If they do go on to win the Stanley Cup, it will have been one of the greatest turnarounds in the history of sports.
Like the Steelers, they were the somewhat low-seeded team entering the playoffs that nobody wanted to play. The No. 6-seeded Hurricanes drew the slumping No. 3-seeded Devils, while the Flyers got stuck drawing the red-hot Penguins.
Both teams entered the playoffs primed for a historic playoff run. The opinion of the experts had changed. While they played the underdog card a plenty on the way to the Super Bowl, the Steelers were getting more than their fair share of respect out of the national sports media as the playoffs started.
Nobody viewed that team as a traditional No. 6 seed.
They knocked off the third-seeded Bengals, the last team that beat them and the AFC North Division champions during the regular season, in the wild-card round. They followed that up by beating the heavily-favored Indianapolis Colts in the divisional round in a game that was so exciting that the Super Bowl almost seemed anticlimactic.
Even here, the parallels are eerily similar. Despite being a No. 4 seed in their conference, the Penguins also were not considered a traditional middle seed with many members of the NHL sports media picking them to win the conference over top seeds like Boston and Washington.
Like the Steelers, the Penguins started their playoff run by also knocking off a nearby divisional foe. They followed that up by beating the Washington Capitals in a hockey series that was so superb that others will have a hard time matching it. That series paralleled the Colts game.
And, they finished up their run to the finals by trouncing an overmatched Hurricanes team in the conference finals, not unlike the Steelers easy win over the Broncos to land them in the Super Bowl.
The 2005 Steelers were loaded with talented players, but they were still dogged by the ghosts of players past who had won championships, players like Mean Joe Greene, Jack Lambert, Franco Harris, and Terry Bradshaw.
Every day, they had to walk past those four Lombardi trophies won in the 1970s, a perpetual reminder of what they hadn't yet accomplished. They needed a championship of their own to finally step out of that shadow.
The 2009 Penguins feature two of the best hockey players in the world in Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. But, they are also playing in the shadows of past Penguins' stars who won two Stanley Cups, players like Mario Lemieux, Ron Francis, Larry Murphy, Jaromir Jagr, and Tom Borraso.
Like those past Lombardi trophies for the Steelers, the larger-than-life Lemieux, in his role as owner, serves as a constant reminder to these players of what that past team achieved as he looks on from the owners’ box. These Penguins also need a championship to step out from his imposing shadow.
So, how will it end? I think the Penguins will finish their historic run in dramatic fashion, outlasting the talented Red Wings in a seven-game series for the ages. And they will follow in the 2005 Steelers’ footsteps by claiming their title in Detroit.
Destiny can not be denied.