The ’12 Days of Christmas’ is a classic holiday song first published in its current form in 1908. In a nod to the classic carol, join The Hockey Writers as we count down the 12 Days of Hockeymas. Each day, we will provide you with a piece of hockey history as we eagerly await the start of the 2020-21 NHL season.
It goes without saying that winning the Stanley Cup is more important than just reaching the Final, but in the case of the Pittsburgh Penguins, each of their six Prince of Wales Trophies has importance.
The Prince of Wales Trophy was first presented in 1926 and is now the trophy used to signify the Eastern Conference champion in the NHL. Before the NHL began using the Eastern/Western Conference format, the conferences were divided by the Prince of Wales and Clarence Campbell Conference.
Hockey players are nothing if not superstitious – one superstition that gets asked every year when the Prince of Wales Trophy or the Clarence S. Campbell Bowl get presented is, will the team touch their award? The notion is that you aren’t supposed to touch another trophy until you win the Stanley Cup. This is something that will be noted with every Penguins’ series victory, because there is a relation to the superstition and the final outcome.
1991: 4-2 Over the Boston Bruins
The road to their first-ever Stanley Cup victory was not an easy one for the Penguins, as the Boston Bruins were the top team in the Prince of Wales Conference throughout the regular season.
The series against Boston did not start well for the Penguins, as they dropped the first two games. The Bruins’ Vladimir Ruzicka helped lead the way with eight points in those two games, including the overtime goal in Game 2. That would be it for Ruzicka, however, as he failed to score another point as the Penguins roared back to win the next four games.
Penguins’ star defenseman Paul Coffey missed the whole series due to an injury, but the team was able to fill his role on the blue line with a different future Hall of Famer, Larry Murphy. With eight points in the series, Murphy led the team in defensive scoring with two goals and six assists.
After going down 2-0, captain Mario Lemieux exploded for 12 points in the final four games, to reach 15 in the series. Lemieux led his team and the league in playoff points in 1991 with 44, including 28 assists. Following the series win, he broke the tradition and superstition by not only touching the Prince of Wales Trophy for a picture, but taking it for a skate around the ice as if it was the Stanley Cup.
The 1990-91 season was an embarrassment of riches for the Penguins as they reached a lot of franchise firsts. They locked up their first division title with a 41-33-6 record during the regular season. They won their first Prince of Wales Trophy when they beat the Bruins in six games. Then, they went on to win their first Stanley Cup over the Minnesota North Stars.
1992: 4-0 Over the Boston Bruins
In a rematch from the previous season’s Prince of Wales Conference Final, the Penguins again bested the Bruins, this time in a clean sweep. The series applied 4 of the 11 straight wins the Penguins picked up on the way to winning their second Stanley Cup in as many years.
Not only did the Penguins check off 11 straight wins on their way to another Cup, but in net for each of those games was Tom Barrasso. In the series against the Bruins, Barrasso stopped 115 of the 122 shots he faced. On the opposite end of the ice, Bruins’ goalie Andy Moog had trouble stopping pucks. Usually a reliable netminder, Moog started in a career-high 62 games during the 1991-92 regular season. Once in the Conference Final, Moog let in 18 of the modest 106 shots faced in his four losses against the Penguins.
The closest the Bruins came to keeping themselves in the series was when Game 1 went to overtime. Jaromir Jagr added his seventh of the postseason with the overtime winner and the Penguins didn’t take their foot off the pedal, scoring 15 goals in the next three games.
In the previous playoff meeting between these two teams, Penguins’ defenseman Ulf Samuelsson laid a borderline dirty hit on Bruins’ star Cam Neely that held him to only 22 games over the following two seasons. Neely was absent from the Bruins lineup for the entire 1992 postseason and the injury ultimately forced an early retirement.
With the Penguins winning Game 4 in front of an unfriendly Boston crowd, there was no celebration with the Wales Trophy, on the ice at least. Lemieux and the Penguins would touch it and bring it to their locker room for a small celebration, all en route to a second consecutive Cup victory.
2008: 4-1 Over the Philadelphia Flyers
Another chapter of the heated Penguins – Flyers rivalry was added when the two met in the 2008 Eastern Conference Final. The series didn’t bring the fireworks or drama that surrounded a Pens – Flyers playoff round like 2012 or 2018 did. In 2008, it was dominated by the Penguins.
The Penguins won the first three games to take a demanding lead in the series, scoring four goals in each of the games. The Flyers avoided the sweep by taking a Game 4 win, but that would be the extent of their success. In Game 5, the Penguins thwarted any chance of a comeback by taking a 6-0 victory, sealing the franchise’s first trip to the Stanley Cup Final since 1992.
Sidney Crosby has become known as one of the most superstitious players in the history of the league. When it was his turn to pose with the Wales Trophy for the first time, he opted for just the picture and no touching.
A young Penguins squad featuring a 20-year-old Crosby and 21-year-old Evgeni Malkin were hungry for their first championship. This, however, would be the only time in franchise history the team would make it to the Final, but lose. The Penguins lost in six games to a veteran Detroit Red Wings team.
2009: 4-0 Over the Carolina Hurricanes
The very next season, the Penguins were ready to repeat as Eastern Conference Champions. The series may have only been four games long, but it was Malkin’s time to shine and lock up his first Conn Smythe Trophy for playoff MVP. In this series alone, Malkin logged six goals and three assists, for nine points.
Before reaching the Eastern Conference Final, the Carolina Hurricanes had a tough road, playing two straight series that went seven games. Their goaltender, Cam Ward, also started 68 of the 82 games played in the regular season. It isn’t totally unfair to say Ward and the Hurricanes came into the Pittsburgh series on fumes and just couldn’t match the intensity.
Whether the Hurricanes were playing at full throttle or not, there was no stopping Malkin this round. Nine points matched how many goals Carolina scored in the four games. Geno put a big exclamation point on the series when he picked up a hat-trick in Game 2, capped off by one of the best goals and individual efforts of his career.
Well aware of his move with the Wales Trophy and the outcome of the season prior, Crosby switched it up this time around and hoisted the award, along with assistant captains Malkin and Sergei Gonchar. The Penguins went on to beat the Red Wings in seven games in the Stanley Cup Final, and a new superstition was born for Crosby.
2016: 4-3 Over the Tampa Bay Lightning
The Tampa Bay Lightning and the Penguins went the distance for a full seven games in one of the most evenly matched series on this list. On the brink of defeat, the Penguins went down 3-2 and one more loss meant the end of the road. The Pens would battle in Games 6 and 7, though, coming away with a pair of victories, 5-2 and 2-1, respectively.
Headlines of Game 7 were already being made when Tampa Bay captain Steven Stamkos returned from injury and played for the first time since late March of that year. Stamkos returning wasn’t enough, though, as the Penguins took the victory with two goals from Bryan Rust.
In 2008, Crosby didn’t touch the trophy, and they lost in the Final. In 2009, it was the exact opposite, and the Penguins won it all. Naturally, Crosby took the trophy and had his alternates, Malkin and Chris Kunitz, take a photo. The Penguins went on to win the Stanley Cup.
2017: 4-3 Over the Ottawa Senators
The Penguins seem to only win Prince of Wales Trophies in back-to-back years. This 2017 Eastern Conference Finals series can be looked at as the starting point for the Ottawa Senators’ recent struggles. The series went the distance and then some by ending in a double-overtime Game 7, a goal that stands as one of the best in Penguins’ history.
Probably the most hard-fought series of any Penguins Conference Final appearance, all but two of the seven games were decided by a single goal and each team had their own blowout victory. It was the Senators’ huge 5-1 win in Game 3 that saw the last time Marc-Andre Fleury played in a Penguins’ uniform. After giving up four goals in the first 13 minutes, Fleury was pulled from the game for Matt Murray.
Going into overtime of Game 7, all the prior stats and games didn’t matter – it all came down to the next goal. The first overtime period saw plenty of great chances for both sides. Phil Kessel had a breakaway, but missed the net. Brian Dumoulin blasted one, hitting Sens’ goalie Craig Anderson, who wasn’t even looking. Another Kessel shot hit the top of the net.
The game could have ended at any point, but it took until a softball of a shot from Kunitz during the second OT to close it out.
Are you sensing a pattern? Crosby, of course, held the trophy again, and had his alternate captains join him for a photo during the presentation. Again, they went on to repeat as Stanley Cup Champions.
The “jinx” or superstition that comes with the Prince of Wales Trophy has been debunked by Pittsburgh alone. Every time the team touches it and hoists it, they go on to win it all. The one and only time they decided against it, it resulted in a Cup Final loss.
More than just superstition however, each Conference Final series holds significance in the history of the Penguins. Some of the best players and biggest moments in franchise history have grown out of Conference Final games. Which one do you remember the most fondly?
Nick Horwat is a graduate of Point Park University and was born and raised in Pittsburgh. A lifelong Penguins fan that has been watching and going to games for as long as he can remember.