People around Pittsburgh love their sports. Flat out. Although, there are some people that aren’t exactly die-hard sports fans in general, some have gravitated towards the Pittsburgh Penguins.
There’s something different about hockey. To be clear, I am in no way downgrading the effect the Steelers and Pirates have had in the Pittsburgh area, but there must be something about that Black and Gold zooming around an ice surface that makes both die-hard sports fans and non-traditional fans go nuts.
Pittsburgh hockey fans have had some of the best luck in the hockey world in the sense that the fans have watched some of the best players don the skating penguin on their chest. From Mario Lemieux to Sidney Crosby, Penguins fans have been blessed to have a front-row seat to some of the most magical moments in NHL history.
So, let’s take a trip down memory lane as I count down the top five most magical storybook moments where you didn’t know whether to cry or wind your watch.
5. Lemieux’s First NHL Goal
In the early stages of the Penguins’ franchise, the team saw some rough times. After the NHL doubled the size of its league from six to 12, the Penguins watched fellow expansion teams like the St. Louis Blues succeed by making trips to the Stanley Cup Final while the Philadelphia Flyers were able to win back-to-back Cups in 1974 and 1975.
But in 1984, the Penguins made it one step closer to breaking through as a successful franchise by drafting a tall, French-Canadian that would save the franchise many times, as both a player and an owner, in the coming years.
Yet, if any moment portrayed to Pittsburgh fans that their savior has arrived, it was Lemieux’s very first shift.
After slipping a puck past Boston Bruins legendary defenseman Ray Bourque at the neutral line, Lemieux raced in with just one man to beat — Boston goaltender Pete Peeters. Lemieux faked forehand before burying his first NHL goal in a silky-smooth fashion on a backhand that virtually let everyone know that the Penguins would soon be a force to be reckoned with.
4. Not Even Cancer Can Stop Super Mario
During the 1992-93 season, the Penguins announced a crushing blow to Pittsburgh fans everywhere — the Penguins’ face-of-the-franchise, Lemieux, was diagnosed with Hodgkin lymphoma.
Earlier in the day, Lemieux finished his 22nd and final treatment for his terrible disease before the Pens were set to take on rival Philadelphia later that night.
It was a tough journey for Lemieux, obviously. But as the saying goes: “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” Lemieux reflected on the journey during a talk with Sports Illustrated.
To everyone’s surprise, Lemieux received a standing ovation by the Philadelphia crowd that usually showered Penguin’s players with boo’s on any given night. Lemieux scored a goal in the second period before notching an assist later on.
Despite the Flyers winning the game, Lemieux went on a tear to finish out the season. He finished the season in which he played just 60 games with 69 goals and 160 points to lead all players in scoring. Lemieux also captured the Hart Trophy as the league’s most valuable player that season.
3. 5 Goals, 5 Different Ways
It is no secret that Lemieux was unlike any player the league had ever seen before. Some people hold him as the best player to ever play the game while many believe that he would have been solidified above Wayne Gretzky had he not seen all the health struggles Lemieux was forced to play through.
There were things Lemieux did that would even have league greats like Gretzky in awe. Near the top of that list is what happened on New Year’s Eve 1988.
On that day, Lemieux did something that no one had ever done before and still has not been replicated — he scored five goals in five different ways.
In a game against division-rival New Jersey Devils, Lemieux scored a goal at even strength, on the power play, shorthanded, on a penalty shot and in an empty net. He also assisted on three other goals to finish the night with eight points.
2. Talbot, Fleury Help Bring Stanley Back Home
When the Penguins drafted Crosby in 2005, questions surrounded both “Sid the Kid” and the franchise about whether or not the Penguins would be able to get back to the glory days of the ’90s. In 2008, Crosby and the Pens came up two wins short of a title against the Detroit Red Wings while those in attendance at Mellon Arena had to watch the Red Wings lift the Cup.
A year later, the Penguins had an opportunity to avenge the loss against those same Red Wings. Despite looking outmatched throughout the early parts of the series, Pittsburgh managed to force Game 7 after being down 3-2 in the series.
As portrayed in the championship documentary, Lemieux sent out a group text to the Penguins that said “This is a chance of a lifetime to realize your childhood dream to win a Stanley Cup. Play without fear and you will be successful!! See you at center ice. Mario.” The type of message that sends chills from an all-time legend.
The Penguins did, in fact, play without fear and an unlikely hero surfaced — Maxime Talbot. He scored twice in the second period that gave Pittsburgh a 2-0 lead before Detroit’s Jonathon Ericsson cut the lead in half in the third. The Penguins had to cling to the one-goal lead until the very end.
With just over six seconds left in the game, the Red Wings won a faceoff in Pittsburgh’s zone before captain Nicklas Lidstrom found himself with nearly a wide-open net off a rebound. Pittsburgh goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury sprawled out in dramatic fashion to block Lidstrom’s shot with his chest, allowing time to run out and bringing Lord Stanley’s Cup back to the city of Pittsburgh.
Take a look back at the entire 2009 Stanley Cup Final.
1. Lemieux’s Iconic Goal Lifts Penguins to First Cup
After seven seasons without a title, Lemieux finally found himself with the opportunity to win a Stanley Cup. The Penguins reached the finals after defeating the Devils, Washington Capitals and Bruins before he made his mark in the most important series of his life.
In the second period of Game 2 in Pittsburgh, the Penguins found themselves leading 2-1 after the Minnesota North Stars took Game 1 of the series.
After Phil Bourque collected a loose puck in his own zone, the “ole two-niner” shoveled a pass over to Lemieux that sparked one of the most memorable Stanley Cup goals in history.
Lemieux gathered the puck at his own blue line before finding himself in a 1-on-2 at the North Stars’ blue line. Lemieux, defended by Minnesota’s Shawn Chambers and Neil Wilkinson, deked between the legs of Chambers and split the defense to end up all alone in front of Jon Casey.
Lemieux then faked a forehand before shifting to the backhand while being pulled down by Chambers’ stick and put the puck in the back of the net for a goal to be remembered for a lifetime.
Lemieux likely shifted all the momentum towards Pittsburgh as the team went on to win its first Cup in franchise history.
I know what you’re thinking. Lemieux dominated this list. Here’s the thing, though. Without him, there is not hockey in Pittsburgh. Plain and simple. He saved the franchise time and time again, both on the ice and off. He gave the franchise life when it needed it most. That is why he is regarded as one of, if not the most significant figure in Pittsburgh sports history.