March Of The Penguins: A Look Into Pittsburgh's Hockey History

Matt Eichel@@mattyalloutSenior Writer IMay 22, 2008

On the heels of their third Eastern Conference championship in franchise history, let's take a look at the Penguins' history in the city of Pittsburgh.

October 11, 1967 - As part of the Great Expansion of 1967, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania was granted one of six new NHL expansion teams.  Pittsburgh's first season opened with a 2-1 loss at the Civic Centre to the Montreal Canadiens.

October 13, 1967 - Pittsburgh's first win can at the expense of their fellow expansion team from St. Louis, as the Penguins defeated the Blues 3-1.

At the end of the '67 season, the Penguins finished in fifth place with a 27-34-13 record, and missed the playoffs by a mere two points in their inaugural season.

The Penguins were led by veteran Andy Bathgate, who led the team in scoring. Alongside Bathgate was tough defenseman Leo Boivin.  The rest of the team was made up of mostly former minor league players.

In baby blue jerseys with a little penguin on the front, the Penguins played through the few first rough years of expansion.  Through the Penguins first seven seasons, they would miss the playoffs five times.  Pittsburgh's talent pool was very thin, aside from stalwart players such as goalie Les Binkley and forward Keith McCreary.

To start the 1970s, the Penguins had a bright future, with a promising rookie centre named Michel Briere.  Briere scored 12 goals and 32 assists in 76 games in his rookie campaign.  Tragedy struck, however, as Briere was injured in a car crash and died a year later.  His No. 21 hangs in the rafters as the first number to be retired by the club.

In 1970, the Penguins reached the playoffs for the first time, where they would eventually lose to the St. Louis Blues in the Western Conference Finals.  Aside from a playoff berth in 1972, the Penguins were annual combatants with the California Golden Seals for the division cellar.

Pittsburgh began to ice very competitive teams in the mid-seventies.  The line of Syl Apps Jr., Jean Pronovost, and Lowell MacDonald—also known as the "Century Line"—led a potent offense.  In 1975, the Penguins came close to the Stanley Cup semifinals, going up 3-0 in the series before being ousted by the New York Islanders.  It was one of only three times in NHL history when a team came back from a 3-0 deficit to win a series.

Other big names in the seventies included Pierre Larouche, Ron Schock, and Ron Stackhouse.  Goaltender Dennis Herron was great in goal for the Penguins during the seventies, yet the Penguins always dwindled in the postseason despite regular season success.

In 1975, the team was forced in bankruptcy and almost folded from the league.  However, a group led by Wren Blair prevented the team from folding and the team stayed in Pittsburgh.

Leading into the 1980s, former coach and general manager of the AHL Hornets Baz Bastien took the reins as general manager, and the Penguins began a decline.  Bastien signed players such as Rich MacLeish and other players who had already played their best years.

In the 1979 playoffs, the Penguins had a rousing first-round victory over the Buffalo Sabres, before a second-round exit via the Boston Bruins.

January 1980 began a new era for the Penguins, as they adopted their present-day black and gold jerseys, which were also the colours of the NFL Steelers and MLB Pirates.  Despite a change in colour, the Penguins still floundered, despite having impact players such as Randy Carlyle and Mike Bullard.

During the early 80s, the Penguins were always the playoff underdogs giving the higher-seeded teams more than they could handle.  In 1980, the 13th seeded Penguins took the Bruins to the limit.  In 1981, the 15th seeded Penguins took the St. Louis Blues to the brink. In 1982, the Penguins took the reigning Stanley Cup champions to the brink, losing the decisive Game Five in overtime.  Pittsburgh would not make the playoffs again until 1989.

In 1983 and 1984, the Penguins struggles almost forced the team to fold once again.  Yet, for their bad fortunes, the Penguins received the top pick in the 1984 NHL Entry Draft.  With that pick, the face and fortune of the team was reversed as their chose a French Canadian phenom named Mario Lemieux.

Lemieux paid dividends right away, scoring a goal on his first shot during his first shift.  Lemieux would scored 43 goals and 57 assists for 100 points in his rookie campaign.  As the Penguins progressed through the 1980s, they improved with trades to acquire smooth-skating Paul Coffey after the Edmonton Oiler's 1987 Stanley Cup win.  Along with Coffey, the Penguins brought youth in with Kevin Stevens, Rob Brown, and John Cullen.

In 1988, the Penguins acquired former Calder and Vezina Tropy winner Tom Barrasso from the Buffalo Sabres, giving the Penguins solid goaltending.  The year after, Pittsburgh made the playoffs—yet were eliminated via their cross-state rivals the Philadelphia Flyers in the second round.  Lemieux amassed 123 points that season, even with missing 21 games in the 1989-90 season.

During the 1989 season, the Penguins hired general manager Craig Patrick to lead the team and continue building the Penguins.

Patrick continued to build a dynasty with the fifth overall pick in the 1990 NHL Entry Draft choosing Czech-born Jaromir Jagr, who became the first Eastern European player to be selected without having defected from his home country.  

Along with Jagr, rookie Mark Recchi came up and scored 67 points in his rookie campaign and 113 points in 1990-91.  Pittsburgh also signed veteran Bryan Trottier as a free agent.  Joe Mullen was dealt in a minor trade that netted Larry Murphy from the Minnesota North Stars, and Ulf Samuelsson and Ron Francis from the Hartford Whalers.

A high-scoring 1990-91 season gave the Penguins 41 wins, 33 losses, and six ties for 88 points.  Pittsburgh would take out the New Jersey Devils in seven games, after being down in that series 3-2.  Pittsburgh would go on to take out the Washington Capitals and the Boston Bruins handily.

In the 1991 Stanley Cup Finals, Pittsburgh dominated the Minnesota North Stars in Games Four through Six, outscoring the Stars 19-7 in those games to take their first Stanley Cup in franchise history.  Mario Lemieux captured the Conn Smythe Trophy with 44 points (16 goals, 28 assists) in 23 playoff games.

The following season, the Penguins were dealt a blow when coach Bob Johnson was lost to cancer.  Pittsburgh managed to get legendary coach Scotty Bowman to step in for Johnson and lead the Penguins to another championship in 1992, as they swept the Chicago Blackhawks.

In 1993, cancer almost dealt the Penguins another blow, as Lemieux missed 24 games.  Yet, Lemieux still captured the Art Ross Trophy with 160 points.  In the 1992-93 season, Pittsburgh captured its first President's Trophy with a 56-21-7 record, winning an NHL-record 17-straight games before tying the Devils on the last day of the regular season.

Despite their impressive season, the Penguins were denied their third Stanley Cup championship by the New York Islanders, in overtime in Game Seven of the semifinals.

Though the glory days were a thing of the past, the Penguins were always at the top of the standings.  Success followed the Penguins as they drafted and traded well, acquiring stars such as Alex Kovalev, Sergei Zubov, Robert Lang, Petr Nedved, Kevin Hatcher, and Darius Kaspiritis.

In 1997, Lemieux retired for the first time.  After Lemieux's retirement, Jaromir Jagr came out from Lemieux's shadow to win four consecutive scoring titles.

Despite the Penguins on-ice successes in the 1990s, the team was once again in financial troubles.  In 1998, the Penguins filed bankruptcy yet again, due to former players deferring their salaries.  Once again, Mario Lemieux stepped in to save the franchise, purchasing the Penguins.

As the 21st century opened, Mario Lemieux came out of retirement to the shock of the hockey world.  He would become the first player-owner in NHL history.  Despite a rousing return from Lemieux and a spirited and deep run in the playoffs, the Penguins lost to the Devils in Game Five of the Stanley Cup Eastern Conference Finals.

Financial troubles continued to haunt Pittsburgh, as they had to deal players such as Jagr to Washington and Kovalev to New York.  The Penguins began a decline to the NHL basement as they missed the playoffs for the first time in 12 years.

Despite having the top pick in the 2003 Entry Draft (with which they selected goalie Marc-Andre Fleury), the Penguins continued to be the cellar dweller of the league, having to deal Martin Straka to Los Angeles and playing without superstar Mario Lemieux due to injury.  The Penguins finished last in the 2003-04 season, yet lost the draft lottery to the Washington Capitals, who would select Alexander Ovechkin. 

As a small-market team, the Penguins always seemed to suffer.  It showed in their average attendance during the 2003-04 season—11,877 fans per game.

By 2005, the Penguins franchise had finally paid off all its debts and loans.

Then, the turn began to happen. The Penguins won the 2005 draft lottery, and selected Sidney Crosby.  With the lockout ending in a collective bargaining agreement, the Penguins went forward, signing big names Sergei Gonchar, Zigmund Pallfy, and John Leclair, and trading for goalie Jocelyn Thibault.

Lemieux announced his final retirement, finishing seventh on the all-time scoring list with 1,723 points, eighth in goals with 690, tenth in assists with 1,033 and the second-highest career points per game with 1.88, second only to Wayne Gretzky's 1.92.

After Lemieux's retirement, the Penguins became Crosby's team.  Crosby would go on to become the youngest rookie to score 100+ points.

After winning the two Stanley Cups and five division titles, the Penguins decided to not renew GM Craig Patrick's contract in 2006.  Ray Shero was hired as the new Pittsburgh GM.  Shero then took Evgeni Malkin in the 2006 draft.  Malkin would pay immediate dividends by setting a record by scoring a goal in each of his first six games.

To further build the Penguins, Shero brought in veteran leadership in Gary Roberts from the Florida Panthers and grit in George Laraque from the Phoenix Coyotes.  Up-and-coming stars such as Jordan Staal also began to pay dividends.

Pittsburgh would make the playoffs in 2007 for the first time since 2002, yet would be eliminated by the eventual Eastern Conference champion Ottawa Senators.

With a potent offense led by Crosby, Malkin, and Staal and a strong defense led by Gonchar, Whitney, and Orpik, the Penguins came into 2007-08 as a heavy favourite to win the Cup.

The Penguins would add the final piece in their team as the dealt for sniper Marian Hossa for their playoff run.  The Penguins ran through the playoffs, sweeping the Senators this time around and taking out the New York Rangers and Philadelphia Flyers both in five games.





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