Before Mario Lemieux arrived in Pittsburgh in 1984 and began leading the Pittsburgh Penguins to a pair of Stanley Cups in the early 1990s, the club had enjoyed precious few moments of glory. Most Penguins teams of the 1967-1984 era struggled just to make the playoffs, much less contend for the Cup. Before “Le Savior” came to town, however, Pens fans could cling to a number of exciting and unforgettable victories. Let’s look at the Top 10.
10. December 4, 1980: Penguins 3, Canadiens 2
The Penguins hadn’t beaten the Canadiens in Montreal since 1969, an 11-year drought that saw them go 0-31-3 at the hallowed Forum. The Pens were continually overmatched against the powerhouse Habs, who won six Stanley Cups during this stretch. Blowouts were frequent, including a 10-1 pasting in 1976 and a humiliating 12-0 massacre in 1979. But on this night, the Pens proved resilient, overcoming a 2-1 third-period deficit on goals by Rick Kehoe and ex-Canadien Pat Hughes to claim a 3-2 victory.
We’ll conveniently overlook the absences that night of injured Montreal stars Guy Lafleur, Larry Robinson, Guy Lapointe and Pierre Larouche. A win’s a win, and the Montreal monkey was at last off the Penguins’ backs. They’d have to savor the victory, too, because a Pittsburgh team would not win again in Montreal for another eight years.
9. December 31, 1978: Penguins 5, Red Wings 4
It was shaping up to be a New Year’s Eve in which the Penguins would be drowning their sorrows over a calendar-ending loss to the Detroit Red Wings. The Pens had turned in a clunker through almost two periods and found themselves down 4-0 at the Olympia in Detroit. Peter Mahovlich gave them a pulse with a goal at 17:48 of that middle frame. In the third, the Wings seemed to have their minds on the good time they were surely going to have down at the pub later that night – and the Pens took advantage.
Peter Lee’s slapshot trickled between Jim Rutherford’s pads at 11:35 to make a game of it and, with less than three minutes to play, Greg Malone scored during a goalmouth scramble to make it 4-3. Gregg Sheppard then banged in a Tom Bladon rebound at 18:17 to tie it. The Wings were clearly on their heels and the Penguins kept coming. Malone rang a shot off the post, but with the puck sitting free near the half-open net, Randy Carlyle swooped in and flipped it home with seven seconds left. Thus, one of the wildest comebacks in club history was complete, and the Pens’ party could truly begin.
8. December 13, 1967: Penguins 2, Maple Leafs 1
The first Penguin team of 1967-68, like the five other expansion clubs that entered the NHL with them that season, had a tall task whenever they had to face any of the six established clubs. No tougher test could have stood before the original Pens than on this Saturday night in Toronto when they faced the defending Stanley Cup Champion Maple Leafs, who were riding an 11-game home winning streak.
The Penguins stood tall, however, and checked the Leafs closely all night. Art Stratton tied the game at one in the second period and Ken Schinkel stunned the sellout crowd when he grabbed an errant slapshot off the backboards and fired it past Johnny Bower to put the Pens ahead 2-1. Goalie Les Binkley, who made 29 saves on the night, barred the door the rest of the way.
The win was a major boost for the fledgling franchise. “It was one of our all-round best performances,” said a satisfied Penguin coach Red Sullivan.
7. February 21, 1982: Penguins 4, Islanders 3
The two-time defending Cup champion New York Islanders came to Pittsburgh on this night riding a league-record 15-game winning streak, a run that had begun exactly one month earlier with a 6-1 pasting of the Pens on Long Island. Some fine goaltending by Michel Dion, however, kept the Pens in the game and they entered the third period down by only a goal, 3-2. A sharp-shooting rookie took over from there.
Mike Bullard scored his 27th at 4:20 to square things at three and connected again with less than five minutes to play when he surprised goalie Roland Melanson with a long-range snapshot that found the back of the net. The Penguins held the mighty Islanders at bay the rest of the way and put an end to their streak. “They laughed at us a little after our last game in New York,” said Bullard afterward, “but I guess we get the last laugh now.”
6. March 24, 1976: Penguins 5, Bruins 5
We’ll cheat a bit by including a tie, but it’s a game that nevertheless stands out as one of the most memorable in the pre-Mario era. The Penguins had some big offensive guns in their blue uniform days, and two of the biggest combined to accomplish two franchise firsts on one magical March night against the Boston Bruins at the Igloo.
Late in the first period, Pierre Larouche broke in on Gilles Gilbert, deked him to the ice and put the puck into an open net to register his 100th point on the season. The 20-year-old Larouche thus became the youngest player to reach that mark and the first Penguin to do so. In the third period, Jean Pronovost became the first Pen to score 50 goals in a season when he knocked his own rebound past Gilbert.
“It’s a wonderful feeling,” said Pronovost. “When I got the rebound, I knew I had the goal. The goaltender was on the ice and all I had to do was lift the puck.”
5. November 22, 1972: Penguins 10, Blues 4
In the early years of the franchise, goals were hard to come by. With little natural talent up front, the Penguin coaches often deployed a strategy of caution: check the opponent closely, pray for some great goaltending, and try to capitalize on the few scoring opportunities that materialized. But for a little over two record-setting minutes on this night, the Penguins looked more like the 1985 Edmonton Oilers than the punchless Pens of the early 1970s. With Pittsburgh leading 5-4 with eight minutes to go in the game against the St. Louis Blues, Bryan Hextall tipped in a Jack Lynch shot to create a bit of breathing room.
Pronovost immediately stormed into the Blues end off the ensuing faceoff and ripped a shot past Wayne Stephenson, just 12 seconds after Hextall’s goal. Al McDonough then converted a Syl Apps pass at 13:40 to make it 8-4. The Blues didn’t know what had hit them, and Ken Schinkel took advantage by scoring just nine seconds after the McDonough goal. Ron Schock kept St. Louis in shock by tallying another Pittsburgh goal just 18 seconds later. When the smoke had cleared, the Penguins had set a record for the fastest five goals by one team: two minutes and seven seconds. It’s a record that no team has since beaten – not even those 1985 Oilers.
4. April 10, 1982: Penguins 2, Islanders 1 (OT)
After the Penguins fell behind two games to none against the Islanders in their best-of-five first-round playoff series, losing by a combined score of 15-3, Pens owner Edward J. DeBartolo, Sr. was incensed. He offered any fan who had bought a ticket for Game 3 in Pittsburgh a full refund. Few fans took him up on the offer, but the no-confidence vote in his players struck a raw nerve in the dressing room, and the Penguins came out with something to prove. They checked the two-time-defending champion Isles much closer than in Games 1 and 2 and pushed the game to overtime tied 1-1.
Facing elimination, Rick Kehoe beat Billy Smith with a shot from the sideboards just past the four-minute mark to force a fourth game.
Pittsburgh won that one, too, and nearly took out the mighty Islanders in Game 5, losing a heartbreaker in overtime. But their win in Game 3 showed the hockey world – and their owner – they were no pushovers.
3. April 10, 1975: Penguins 5, Blues 3
Entering the 1975 playoffs, the Penguins had won a grand total of six post-season games in their seven-year history. In the first round, they faced their biggest rival in the early days of the franchise, the St. Louis Blues, who had eliminated the Pens in the second round of the 1970 playoffs. After taking Game 1 of the best-of-three series by a score of 4-3, Pittsburgh travelled to the Gateway to the West looking for a quick gateway to the second round.
They found an unlikely scoring hero in defenseman Colin Campbell, who tallied a shorthanded goal at 4:33 of the third to put the Pens ahead 4-3. Vic Hadfield notched an insurance marker with less than four minutes to play when his 40-foot slapshot beat Blues goalie Eddie Johnston – who would, years later, draft Mario Lemieux while serving as Penguins GM – to seal the win and the series. It would be one of only three playoff series wins the Penguins would enjoy throughout their first 21 years of existence.
2. April 12, 1970: Penguins 3, Seals 2 (OT)
Guided by new coach Red Kelly, the Penguins had made the playoffs for the first time following two painful years of existence that saw them miss the post-season dance each time. They raced out to a 3-0 lead in the best-of-seven series and were looking to polish off their expansion cousin Seals right in Oakland. The Seals put up a bigger fight on this night, however, and pushed the game into overtime.
Nearing the halfway mark of the extra frame, Penguins veteran Val Fonteyne fired a hard shot at the Seals net. Goalie Gary Smith made the save but left the puck sitting to the right of his crease. Rookie Michel Briere pounced and made no mistake, giving the Pens their first-ever overtime goal and the series.
Sadly, Briere would suffer eventually fatal injuries in a car accident shortly after the season ended, but his electrifying play that year and his big goal on this night helped attract many new Pittsburgh fans to the sport and their new team.
1. April 14, 1979: Penguins 4, Sabres 3 (OT)
The Penguins and Sabres had traded victories in their short best-of-three preliminary round series, setting up a decisive Game 3 showdown at the Aud in Buffalo. The Sabres owned much of the play throughout the game, but goalie Denis Herron was up to the challenge, stopping 37 of 40 shots, often in spectacular fashion, through three periods. The game went to overtime tied 3-3, thanks to two unlikely goals by Pens farmhand Jim Hamilton.
Less than a minute into the extra period, Pittsburgh forward George Ferguson sped toward a loose puck along the left boards, corralled it, and, without missing a stride, bore in on Buffalo goalie Bob Sauve. His quick shot beat Sauve between the pads and the Penguins were on to the second round for only the third time in their 12-year history.
Finally, long-suffering Penguin fans has something to celebrate. Said the scoring hero afterward: “I don’t think the play on the winning goal was anything different than I’ve been doing all season. But it sure meant a whole lot more.”
Greg Enright is a veteran journalist, writer and hockey historian. He enjoys diving into newspaper and magazine archives and digging out forgotten or little-known stories from the game’s past. Greg is the author of “The Pittsburgh Penguins – The First 25 Years,” published in March 2020 by McFarland. A member of the Society for International Hockey Research and a lifelong Penguins fan, Greg lives in Toronto.