1990-91 Penguins: In their own words
It’s been 20 years since the Penguins won their first Stanley Cup on May 25, 1991.
“It was a fantastic hockey team,” Bob Errey said, “one of the best that Pittsburgh’s fielded.”
Here’s the tale of that season, in their own words.
Over the summer, the Penguins added a new coach (Bob Johnson), a renowned director of player personnel (Scotty Bowman), several veterans for leadership (Bryan Trottier and Joe Mullen) and a promising rookie (Jaromir Jagr):
Bob Errey: Bob Johnson, he was the one that really brought everyone together. He was able to get the best out of everybody, and that’s what you have to get. … On your worst day, he could make you feel good, and I can’t say enough about that man.
Wendell Young: When you put experience like (Bryan) Trottier and (Joe) Mullen in the dressing room, the great leaders — they’re not the screaming leaders; they’re the calming leaders that go out and work hard every day — and great guys, and everyone kind of followed a lot of their lead. Especially with Trots, with all the championships he had previously, he kind of was a calming force with everyone. We had a fairly young team, and we went out and followed the lead.
Scotty Bowman: The Islanders wanted (Joe Mullen), too. We were offering a third-round pick, but the Islanders’ third-round pick was better. I had mentioned to Craig (Patrick), I said, you know, I’d give a second-round pick. What’s the differenceâ¢ … He came in and was tremendous.
Paul Coffey: If you have guys who want to become better like (Jaromir) Jagr — nobody worked harder than Jaromir. He worked his (butt) off. When he was an 18-year-old and came to that team, the time he’d spend on and off the ice, he worked hard. He got blessed with talent, but he had nothing given to him.
Bryan Trottier: We were always trying to explain to him, ‘You know, Jaromir (Jagr), you can pass the puck, we’ll pass it back, honestly.’ He would just try to carry the puck all the time, and he was tough to get the puck off of. He’d get that big butt out there, and defensemen couldn’t get it from him. We couldn’t get it from him, either.
Barry Pederson: Craig Patrick, I thought did a tremendous job of evaluating talent, what elements the team needed, and being able to go out there and find that element and surrounding Bob (Johnson) with winners at previous times in their career.
The season begins
The Penguins started with a significant hole in their lineup — Mario Lemieux missed the first 50 games after offseason back surgery. In his absence, the “Option Line” of Mark Recchi, Kevin Stevens and John Cullen paced the Penguins. The team would eventually feature six players who are now in the Hockey Hall of Fame — Lemieux, Paul Coffey, Ron Francis, Larry Murphy, Bryan Trottier and Joe Mullen — with Recchi and Jaromir Jagr likely to join them when their playing days end.
John Cullen: I’m not sure how you could pick up Mario’s slack; no one can pick up Mario’s slack, what Mario can do for a team. So, we had great players, we had guys who won — like Paul Coffey and Tom Barrasso, Joey Mullen, just the veterans that we had that had so much experience — that really, really helped us at the start of that season.
Randy Gilhen: What a lot of people I think might forget about that was John Cullen was a big part of that. He had come in and just played unbelievable. Unfortunately, and it was fortunate — it was a double-edged sword — with John being traded and getting Ronnie Francis.
Kevin Stevens: We were all good buddies. I think the thing with that line, we played together on the ice, but we all lived together off the ice. We really were a pack. So, I think we all tried to get the most out of each other.
Jim Paek: I was pretty much in awe. But, you know, at the end of the day, you’re skating on the same ice, you’re changing with them in the same dressing room, and they didn’t make you feel any different. They didn’t make you feel inferior or better or worse or anything. They were just great teammates.
Shake it up
Through the season, the Penguins radically altered their lineup through trades. The Penguins added veteran defenseman Gordie Roberts from the Blues for future considerations. Then, in a swap of defensemen with the North Stars, they added Larry Murphy and Peter Taglianetti in exchange for Jim Johnson and Chris Dahlquist. Next came Czech veteran Jiri Hrdina from the Flames for defenseman Jim Kyte, and right wing Scott Young from the Whalers for forward Rob Brown. In the biggest move, the Penguins shipped forwards John Cullen and Jeff Parker and defenseman Zarley Zalapski to the Whalers for center Ron Francis and defensemen Ulf Samuelsson and Grant Jennings.
Gordie Roberts: At that point, I think I had played 12, 13 years in the NHL and went from being more of an offensive defenseman to being just a steady, move-the-puck defensive-type guy. … I think I became kind of a top-six guy and played a lot more minutes than probably what I thought when I first went there, and I couldn’t ask for a better situation.
Peter Taglianetti: I knew a lot of them. I walked in, and it felt like home.
Jiri Hrdina: I knew my role would be there to help out (Jaromir Jagr) a little bit too because that time of the year, the first year, the first three or four months for him was just really tough because he couldn’t speak the language. So, I knew I had to help him with anything on the ice — he was a great player at that time, too — but basically off the ice.
Scott Young: I couldn’t believe it. I remember being on the bench. I can’t believe how many goals we’d get. It didn’t seem like the NHL to me. We were just scoring. I just remember having that feeling that there was this wide-open brand of hockey, and I wasn’t used to it all.
Ron Francis: I knew pretty early on that something special could be happening in Pittsburgh. You could just sense it. There was so much talent, and I felt like we fit in immediately.
Paul Coffey: You get a guy like (Ron) Francis that played on a team that was good and bad. Some years, Hartford was good, playing Montreal in the playoffs and Quebec. And other years, they weren’t. There’s a guy that had to fight for everything he got. … They were just perfect fits, Ronnie playing behind Mario (Lemieux) gave us a legitimate second centerman.
Paul Stanton: When I played with Ulf (Samuelsson), he was a mean, tough player. I think he’s probably one of the toughest players I ever played with and ever seen. He dealt out a lot of punishment, and he took a lot of punishment. He wasn’t afraid of anybody. I think he’s a lot smarter player than a lot of people thought he was. He was a good, puck-moving defenseman, I think. … He gets kind of underrated as a guy that people thought just ran around the ice and tried to kill people.
Grant Jennings: We were all big guys, and size and defense … that’s what they were needing at that time. They had all the scoring power that they needed. … Looking back now, it’s a pretty good mix, that’s for sure.
Patrick Division semifinals — New Jersey
After acquiring Ron Francis, Ulf Samuelsson and Grant Jennings, the Penguins went 9-3-2 down the stretch to overtake the Rangers for the Patrick Division title. They finished 41-33-6 in the regular season to set a team record for wins. It was the first division title in the Penguins’ 24-year history and set up a first-round matchup with the Devils. The Penguins were down, 3-2, in the series when Frank Pietrangelo made what’s simply known as “The Save.”
Frank Pietrangelo: Peter Stastny was coming in and, you know, had an open net. I just reached back and tried to stop the puck, and lo and behold, it went in my glove. It was kind of a spectacular moment, I guess. It was something that you don’t realize what the impact of that was going to be until, obviously, later down the road, rightâ¢ But I guess it was just something meant to be.
Ulf Samuelsson: That’s obviously a huge save for us. That save turned the series and the momentum we gained from that.
Patrick Division finals — Washington
The Penguins lost the first game of the series before steamrolling the Capitals in four straight games. Injuries sidelined several defensemen, most notably Paul Coffey, who had a broken jaw that required surgery.
Jim Paek: All of a sudden, Peter Taglianetti gets hurt, Ulf Samuelsson gets hurt and Paul Coffey gets hurt. Who would ever think that, you know?
Grant Jennings: Even when we were playing Washington, we were all sitting in the dressing room, during the game, we’re just like, we’re better than these guys. I mean, it was obvious. … And we were outplaying them; we just couldn’t figure out how to win. And then, all of a sudden, we did. Next thing you know, away we went.
Paul Coffey: That was a great series. Penguins-Washington was always legendary. It was phenomenal to watch the guys do what we did.
Wales Conference finals — Boston
The Bruins opened a 2-0 lead, but the Penguins felt like they were the better team. After a 5-4 overtime loss in Game 2, Kevin Stevens guaranteed that the Penguins would win the series. The series also featured an open-ice hit involving Ulf Samuelsson and the Bruins’ Cam Neely that still draws the ire of Boston fans.
Ulf Samuelsson: So, my methods were, at the time, most of them were legal and pushed the envelope a little bit as far as you could take it, but it was like a different game-plan for each top line. Particularly with that line, it seemed like physical play really bothered those guys, so that was something that we focused on.
Kevin Stevens: I was mad more than anything. I just said we were going to win the next four. I just knew we could beat them; I knew we were going to beat them. It’s just a matter of proving to your teammates, and I said it. I didn’t mean for everybody, the whole world to hear it, but I guess it got blown up like that.
Scott Young: And I remember absolutely believing it because of the way the first two games went. I thought we completely outplayed them in the first two games and came out on the short end. I remember we all felt it, and Kevin came out and said it.
Stanley Cup Final — Minnesota
The Penguins played for their first Stanley Cup against another upstart team, the North Stars. To continue a trend, the Penguins lost the opening game for the fourth straight series. The Penguins traded wins in Game 2 and 3 and faced a 2-1 deficit. A huge penalty kill in Game 4 — after Troy Loney took a five-minute major — sparked the Penguins to even the series. Then, the Pens’ offense kicked in, with 14 goals in the final two games.
Paul Coffey: They’re all very special, but that one there, if you had a wager on that in Vegas, you would have been a billionaire. Nobody suspected the Penguins to win.
Grant Jennings: I remember we were down two games to one, and someone was saying, ‘Oh, they’re ordering their ring sizes already.’ I remember that. And we’re like, ‘Whatâ¢ What the (expletive) did he just say?’
Troy Loney: The only thing that kept going through my mind is Billy Buckner. I just kept thinking, ‘Oh my goodness. If they come back and they beat us, it’s going to be looked on as Loney’s the guy who blew it for the Penguins. Hey, honey, we’ve got to move.’
Peter Taglianetti: Bob Johnson comes in to give us a speech before the (third) period starts. … I forget the exact words, but it was something like, ‘You guys have 20 minutes to be etched on the Cup, immortality in the NHL.’ We’re all just sitting there; guys are just bouncing up and down because everything was just pent up and couldn’t get going. He goes, ‘This is what you live for, the whole 9 yards.’ And he stopped and looked around, and he goes ‘Don’t (mess) it up.’ It was the only time he ever swore. It was like the air was let out of the room.
Joe Mullen: It seemed like we were watching that clock, and it was taking forever to tick down.
Randy Gilhen: I’ve never clock-watched so much in my whole career, just watching it and watching it tick away, just knowing what was coming.
Kevin Stevens: Nobody ever thought it was going to be 8-0 (in Game 6). That was a big win for us. We had no idea we were going to stomp them that bad. They were a great team.
Gordie Roberts: I didn’t realize how heavy the Cup was, No. 1. I’d hate to have a shoulder injury trying to raise it over your shoulder.
Bryan Trottier: I’m just enjoying the fact that I could be a champion, and I celebrated it in another city that really knows how to celebrate a championship, with a new group of guys, when I thought I’d never do it again — you kind of hope you’re going to do it again. You get that championship feeling back again, and it was great.
Phil Bourque: When I got up there (at the Stanley Cup celebration), I still, I grabbed the Cup. I was just like, the first thing that came to my mind was the river right there and what I wanted to do with it and let’s take this thing down on the river and party all summer. And it was a party.