It was the first of the Stanley Cups won by the Sidney Crosby-Evgeni Malkin-Kris Letang Fleury generation of Penguins and a thrilling one given the opponent, the way the season had gone (a slow start, an in-season coaching change, overcoming a pair of 2-0 series deficits in the playoffs) and what happened the year before against that same Detroit Red Wings team.
It was also the positive result of the dark rebuild between 2001 and 2005 when the team was stripped down to a skeleton, wasn’t exactly on solid financial footing, and for a significant part of that wasn’t guaranteed to remain in Pittsburgh. There were some sketchy moments.
Several of players that lifted the Stanley Cup in 2009 (and even more that played in the Stanley Cup Final in 2008) were also a part of some really, really, really bad rebuilding teams.
One of those bad rebuilding teams was the 2005-06 Penguins, who really weren’t supposed to be all that bad.
It was the year Crosby arrived in the NHL after the Penguins lucked out in the draft lottery.
Mario Lemieux was still playing.
Coming out of the 2004-05 NHL lockout the Penguins were a team that was loaded with salary cap space and spent heavily on free agents Sergei Gonchar, Ziggy Palffy, John Leclair, Mark Recchi, and Jocelyn Thibault.
On paper, there was reason for optimism.
On the ice, it never materialized.
Crosby was instantly brilliant, but the positive progress for this team stopped there.
Lemieux only played in 26 games, Recchi and Leclair were a shell of their former selves, Palffy left the team halfway through the season, the defense was a complete and total mess, and the Ed Olczyk head coaching experience came to an end just 31 games into the season.
That was when Michel Therrien came in, setting the stage for one of the most infamous moments in Penguins history.
It was 13 years ago this week (Jan. 10, 2006) that Therrien delivered one of the most memorable, brutal, and scathing post-game press conferences in the history of the franchise. Maybe the entire NHL. Maybe all of sports.
The Penguins were coming off of an ugly 3-1 loss to the Edmonton Oilers, their third loss in a row to drop their record to a dismal 11-22-9. It was the official halfway point of the season and the team had won only 11 games.
Therrien, who had been on the job for almost exactly one month, had seen enough.
A look at how it was received in Pittsburgh the next day in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette:
“Are we going to be happy to be play eight minutes? What will those guys say if we take 50 percent of their salary because they only play 50 percent of the time.”
“I really think their goal is to be the worst defensive squad in the league, and they’re doing such a great job to be the worst defensive squad in the league.”
Then there was whole Ilya Kovalchuk thing.
This performance by the Penguins came after a series of back-to-back losses to the Atlanta Thrashers, including the first game where Kovalchuk scored a power play goal with Crosby in the box and celebrated by pointing him.
After the game he added this:
He takes those stupid penalties all the time. He’s an 18 year old kid, and he can’t play like this. He starts yapping about his teammates in the newspapers … I don’t know, he should play really hard on the ice and keep it at that.”
Therrien’s response during his post-game rant?
“It’s a game of emotion, it’s a game of hard work, it’s a game of passion. Kovalchuk, what he did the other day, there’s not one guy that was close to doing something. Maybe Maxime Talbot. At the end. With one second left. He’s about 5-foot-8. Pfft. As a coach, did I get the feeling the team cares for each other? Wow. Tried to have a good ambience with the team yesterday. Pfft. Hey. So I guess we have to comeback with the old recipe. It’s like ... they make my job miserable ... so ...it’s give and take. What can I do?”
“I’m so disappointed about lots of guys. Very disappointed. Because they don’t care.”
The most savage coaching rant you will ever hear.
The message, of course, did not really get through to such a lackluster team as they went on to lose 14 out of their next 15 games and finished the season with only 22 wins.
The next season, though, things would get remarkably better with the arrivals of Evgeni Malkin and Jordan Staal and an influx of young talent that would eventually lead the team to a couple of championship runs. Five of the players in uniform that night (Crosby, Gonchar, Talbot, Rob Scuderi, and Marc-Andre Fleury) would go on to be a part of the 2009 Stanley Cup winning team, while a couple more (Ryan Whitney, Ryan Malone) were part of the 2008 Stanley Cup Final team.
This may not have been the best moment in Penguins history, but it will always be one of the most memorable.