Last year at this time, coach Mike Sullivan had a simple message to his team when it came to repeating as Stanley Cup champions. “Why not?”
Turned out it worked and the Penguins became the first team in the NHL’s salary cap era (2005-present) to win back-to-back championships.
Pittsburgh is in uncharted waters as they look for a third consecutive title. Against all odds in a parity era to collect talent, they’ve retained the majority of the core of their team. So again the message from Sullivan is why not?
While they search for even more greatness and immortality, we took a quick look at the most recent b-2-b champs and how they fared going for the three-peat.
|Year||Team||Reg Season||Playoff Result|
|Year||Team||Reg Season||Playoff Result|
|1998-99||Detroit Red Wings||43-32-7 (1st place division)||Eliminated 2nd round (COL)|
|1992-93||Pittsburgh Penguins||56-21-7 (Presidents Trophy)||Eliminated 2nd round (NYI)|
|1988-89||Edmonton Oilers||38-34-8 (3rd division)||Eliminated 1st round (LA)|
|1985-86||Edmonton Oilers||56-16-7 (Presidents Trophy)||Eliminated 2nd round (CGY)|
|1981-82||New York Islanders||54-16-10 (1st conference)||WON STANLEY CUP|
|1977-78||Montreal Canadiens||59-11-10 (1st conference)||WON STANLEY CUP|
Summarizing it from end to beginning:
The Canadiens in the ‘70s were some of the finest teams ever assembled. This team in ‘78 for their 3-peat featured 9 Hall of Famers in Guy Lafleur, Larry Robinson, Ken Dryden, Yvan Cournoyer, Serge Savard, Guy Lapointe, Steve Schutt, Jacques Lemaire and Bob Gainey. Plus HOF coach in Scotty Bowman. Yeah, guessing they wouldn’t have retained this team for a 3-peat in a salary cap era.
Regardless, they were the best team in the regular season and rolled to a 3rd straight Cup. Not too sure the Pens have too many lessons to take from them, aside from having the best forward (Lafleur, Art Ross), and goalie (Dryden, Vezina) that year which Pittsburgh could replicate in a perfect world with Crosby-Murray. But objectively the ‘78 Habs were way deeper than any team these days could hope to be.
A lot of the same could be said the 1982 Islanders, who coming off 2 Cup wins put up the most wins and points in the NYI dynasty for their 3-peat season. In the Islanders 4 straight Cups from 1980-83, they had a remarkable 16 players a part of all 4 victories, a feat just unimaginable in a salary cap world. The 1982 team swept their way in the SCF to a title and had 5 HOF players (Mike Bossy, Clark Gillies, Bryan Trottier, Billy Smith and Denis Potvin). Plus a HOF coach in Al Arbour.
Bottom line: the old school 3-peats had a bell-cow defenseman (Robinson and Potvin, respectively), 3-4 top forwards and a quality goalie.
The rest didn’t achieve 3-peat
Wayne Gretzky set records probably never to be broken in this season with 163 assists and 215 points in the regular season as the team rolled to the league’s best record. They also had HOF’ers in Jari Kurri, Mark Messier, Glen Anderson, Paul Coffey, Charlie Huddy and Grant Fuhr, plus coach Glen Sather.
So what went wrong for the three-peat? This team lost in Game 7 against Calgary on the infamous Steve Smith own-goal in G7. Such a dreadful, unfortunate moment, but Edmonton would shake it off come back to win the next 2 years which leads us into...
This Oiler team, as you can see in the chart above, were the worst modern team to go for a three-peat in terms of regular season performance. They also got eliminated in the first round, the only modern b-2-b team to not win at least one round in the playoffs in the attempt for a third straight title.
There’s an obvious reason for this, due to the jarring trade prior to the start of this season that sent Gretzky to the Los Angeles Kings. To add insult to injury, the Kings were the ones to eliminate the Oil in the playoffs.
It speaks to the strength of the team though, that even without The Great One that Edmonton was able to again shake off the loss and win the Cup in 1990 for their 5th in seven years to conclude their dynasty.
Sadly, the next dynasty-in-waiting in the NHL after Edmonton was our very own Pens team but they couldn’t quite get there. Ask any old head and they will tell you the 92-93 team was the strongest and best one in the Mario Lemieux era. They remain the only Pens team in franchise history to win the Presidents Trophy and also set the all-time league record for a 17-game win streak (non-shootout aided too!).
Of course, Pens fans don’t need reminded how things ended, with a ghastly injury to Kevin Stevens and then an overtime goal in Game 7 to cap off an unlikely upset at the hands of the Islanders.
Unfortunately, this failed three-peat represented a last shot for this incarnation of Penguins. They would go onto win their division three of the next four seasons, yet they would never be a serious championship contender again in this era after this last best chance slipped away.
1999 Red Wings
Detroit is the most recent team until now to go for a three-peat in the NHL and their quest fell short in the second round in against a blood feud rival in the Colorado Avalanche. The hostility of these two teams were unreal back in this heated time. Could be a lesson to learn for the Pens as it’s likely with the playoff format that they might play teams like the Rangers/Capitals/Blue Jackets in early rounds of the playoffs, all teams that they have had spirited rivalries with. Nothing quite like the violence and contempt DET/COL had back in the day but something to take anyways.
Ultimately, that these Pittsburgh Penguins are even in the conversation with many of the all-time greats shows just what a magical run they are on. These are all pre-salary cap can’t be emulated exactly the same, but greatness is relative and dynasties are forever. By winning 2 in a row and even 3 in 9 this Pens team is in the conversation with the all-time bests in recent memories. And they now have a unique and special opportunity to cement their legacy even further.
Can they go 3-peat and really etch themselves in that company of the modern day dynasties?