The Pittsburgh Penguins have been one of life's verities. Styles might vary, attitudes might change, politics might shift. But the Penguins were an island of stability: They always stank.
Pick up the paper, look at the standings.... Yep, still in last place, those Pens. The world wasn't falling off its axis after all. It was somehow reassuring, though not particularly satisfying to the Pens themselves. In their largely miserable and tormented 19-year history, they have managed to rack up the following statistics: bankruptcies declared—1; seasons with a .500-or-better record—4; seasons without making the playoffs (not an easy feat in the NHL)—10.
That's why the rest of the hockey world was so stunned when the Penguins got off to a 7-0 start this season, one win short of tying the league record. Try saying it slowly: The Pittsburgh Penguins are the winningest team in hockey. Doesn't exactly roll off the tongue, does it? Of course, reality eventually caught up with the Pens, and after tying the Blues 3-3 in St. Louis on Saturday night, their season record stood at a more reasonable 8-3-1. But while the early giddiness in Pittsburgh has been tempered, around the rest of the Patrick Division there is an uncomfortable awareness that the Pens are legitimate contenders in the fight for playoff spots. As Penguins coach Bob Berry acknowledges, "From now on, we're going to have to muck and grind for every point we get."
But as long as Pittsburgh can keep 21-year-old center Mario Lemieux on the ice for some 35 to 40 minutes a game, the team's future will bear little resemblance to the sorry past. Lemieux, who has been a Penguin for two years but has yet to be in a playoff game, is a young man on a mission. He is second in the scoring race—16 goals and 14 assists, six points behind Wayne Gretzky—and has managed at least a point in every game. Lemieux is playing angry, inspired hockey at both ends of the rink, a departure from previous seasons when he occasionally lapsed into indifference.
"Mario knew that the thing he had to work hardest on this summer was his mind," says Craig Simpson, a Penguins center/right wing. "There were games last year when he wasn't quite there, but this year he's playing with an intensity and a fury. He knew he had to step it up. Being second in the league in scoring [last season] is a great accomplishment, especially behind Gretzky, but being 74 points behind [215 to 141] was really tough on Mario. He was angry about it."
Just as Larry Bird wants the ball when the Celtics are down one point with scant seconds remaining, so Lemieux now steps forward in tight situations. When the Penguins were behind the Whalers 2-1 in the final period last Tuesday, it was Lemieux who beat Whaler goalie Mike Liut on a breakaway. Four nights later in St. Louis, Pittsburgh again down by one goal in the third period, Lemieux scored and sent the game into overtime. Pittsburgh came away from these two games with only a tie, but Lemieux had served notice that he is ready to prove his greatness over a full 80-game season.
"He keeps getting better and, like Gretzky, he makes everyone around him better," said Liut. Just ask Warren Young, who scored 40 goals while playing on Lemieux's line in 1984 but only 22 after he signed last season with Detroit. Or talk to Terry Ruskowski, a veteran who scored a career-high 26 on Lemieux's left wing last year.
"Once they drafted Lemieux [in 1984], you knew it was just a matter of time," says Bob Plager, a St. Louis Blues assistant coach. "The question is depth. Obviously the Penguins could never afford to lose Lemieux. But they also can call on some people who you wouldn't be scared to use. In previous years, they'd get an injury and bring someone up from the minors who deserved to be in the minors. But now they have some quality."
There was the rub the last two seasons. Lemieux would carry the Penguins past the playoff race's three-quarter pole, then tire, and Pittsburgh would quietly fade in the stretch. It was Marvelous Mario and 19 guys named Moe. Now it's Mario, one guy named Moe (Mantha) and an improving, young defense—notably Doug Bodger, Jim Johnson and Ville Siren—which allowed one less goal per game last season than it did in 1984.
"There are four good lines now," says Young. The Pens are particularly strong in the middle with Lemieux, Mike Bullard, John Chabot and Simpson, as versatile and as deep a center-ice lineup as can be found in the NHL.
The bottom line: The Penguins are neither as good as their 7-0 start would indicate nor as ragged as they looked against Hartford and New Jersey in consecutive 5-2 and 8-6 losses early last week. Still, that startling start has had one lasting benefit. It has turned a football town's attention to hockey, a major alteration in the Steel City.
Three of the Pens' first seven home games have been sellouts, and the average attendance at Civic Arena has been 13,858, compared with a franchise-high 12,576 last season. Sporting goods stores are suddenly calling the Penguin offices for team paraphernalia, and local bars are looking for jerseys and pennants to hang on the walls. And at a Meet the Penguins bash at Chauncy's, a nightclub, bouncers had to turn fans away. A few years ago, free drinks and limo service wouldn't have been enough to draw a crowd. Perhaps the most telling sign of all: At the recent Steelers-Bengals game, four people showed up at Three Rivers Stadium dressed as Penguins—not merely in Penguin uniforms but costumed like the namesake bird.
The Penguins broke from the chute on the opening night of the season by overcoming a three-goal deficit against the Washington Capitals in Landover, Md. "You're down three against the Caps and you've generally had it," says defenseman Mantha. "But the way we came back to win that game [5-4] set the tone. We were still flying from that one for the next four games."
The Pens will admit that for one charmed stretch they made—and received—every conceivable break. Of those seven straight victories, they won three in overtime (against the Rangers, Kings and Sabres)—all on the first shot of the extra period. And they came from behind in six of their first eight wins. Lemieux had back-to-back five-point games against Buffalo and New Jersey, while Bodger topped his goal output for all of 1984-85 with five during the win streak.
"It was incredible around here; the city was buzzing," says Simpson. "You'd go places and people would know you were a hockey player. That never used to happen. You'd look at the papers, and we'd be on the front page. The way the Pirates and Steelers have been going, the door was open for us...and we walked right in."
But Pittsburgh is still a football town. To fill Three Rivers, the Steelers need only show up. To fill Civic Arena, the Penguins must win. The fast start was like living a fantasy, but honeymoons can be quickly followed by bitter divorces. Very simply, the Penguins must make the playoffs for the first time in five years or take a hike. Financially and emotionally the team is on an alltime high, but the rumors, unfounded ones, persist that the franchise will move to Hamilton, Ont.
"After missing the playoffs by two points last year, this becomes a make-or-break year," says Ruskowski. "No ifs, ands or buts. We can't keep telling people we're going to make it and then let them down." Based on the early returns in the Patrick, a .500 effort the rest of the way should be more than enough. The Devils have improved but are still very young, as are the rebuilding Islanders, and the Rangers are hardly a juggernaut.
Says Ruskowski: "There are no excuses this season."