The year was 1993. Health Care Reform was the big issue dominating news. In sports, the Pittsburgh Pirates had a losing season and the Penguins were poised to make their 3rd straight appearance in the Stanley Cup Finals. Somebody hit the gas on that DeLorean and let's get it up to 88 MPH…
Having grown up in Pittsburgh, I've been blessed to see some of the greatest offensive talents in NHL history dominate the score sheet for the past 25 years. Since 1987, the Penguins have produced the Art Ross Trophy winner in 14 of 22 seasons, between the likes of Lemieux, Jagr, Crosby, and Malkin. We've also been privileged enough to see them lift the Cup 3 times in that span, albeit never on home ice.
However, with such great talent, and great expectations, we've also been witness to 2 of the most surprising and disappointing playoff letdowns of the past several decades. 1993 and 2010. The similarities are striking and (as a Pens fan), painful to recount. But in order to heal, we must first face our fears. So let the therapy begin.
After 2 straight Cup victories, the Pens were primed to three-peat in 1993, featuring one of the most talented rosters ever fielded in hockey and coached by the all-time great Scotty Bowman. Lemieux, Francis, Jagr, Mullen, Murphy, Trottier, Barrasso, Stevens, Tocchett, Naslund… that's 5 current Hall of Famers, and a couple more likely candidates on the horizon. It was assumed that this cast of all-stars would roll over the low seeded Islanders in the second round, who finished the season 32 points shy of the 1st place Pens.
Fast forward 17 years and the story line sound familiar. Coming off 2 straight appearances in the finals and defending the Cup in Round 2 against the 8th seeded Canadiens, it was a foregone conclusion that the Pens would roll over Montreal.
The two series played out in similar fashion. The Pens badly outshot their underdog opponent, but came up against a hot goaltender and some opportunistic scoring, while getting inconsistent goaltending on their end of the rink. 1993 featured the 5' 10'' Glen Healy standing tall, as the two teams traded close games down to a game 7 finale in Mellon Arena. Tom Barrasso was embarassing in that series, giving up 19 goals in the final 4 games. 2010 gave us a much taller Jaroslav Halak (5' 11'') once again standing on his head to frustrate an all-star Penguin lineup into a game 7 let down. Meanwhile Marc-Andre Fleury struggled, and was ultimately pulled in the final contest.
It's hard to say which image will give Penguins fans more nightmares over the coming years: Dave Volek's half-court slapshot sneaking past Tom Barrasso in overtime, or Sergei Gonchar standing still while Travis Moen skates around him for a short-handed back-breaking 4th goal. Either way, Pittsburgh fans walk away shaking their heads wandering how such a talented team can fall to such an inferior opponent.
1993 and 2010 may ultimately give us something even more significant to remember. That is, a Montreal roster only good enough to finish 3rd in their division, may be on the brink of lifting the Stanley Cup once again. And oh yeah - the Pirates are still looking for that winning season.