Our pals around the network are writing about the best team of their respective teams to not win a championship, which is a nice book-end to the tournament we had out of boredom to crown the best Pittsburgh Penguins’ team ever. In somewhat of a surprise to me — at least by the percentages — the 1991-92 Pens knocked out the 2015-16 Pens in the finals by a commanding 64%-36% margin with almost 1,600 votes cast. Thanks to all who participated!
The Pens’ best team to not win the Stanley Cup is a painful but intriguing question. The 2013 lockout team might encapsulate the “dog days” of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin who couldn’t regain the magic with Ray Shero and Dan Bylsma from 2009.
The better answer though is the club that came after the one that Pensburgh voted as the top Pens’ team ever in the 1992-93 version.
You have to shift your mind back to how the NHL was in the old days. It was a world where franchise’s went on long runs of dominance. The Montreal Canadiens claimed the Cup four straight times from 1976-79. Then the Islanders rattled off four straight Cups from 1980-83. Then it was the age of Gretzky with the Oilers taking five of the next seven championships from 1984-90.
By the spring of 1993, the next dynastic power in the NHL had emerged, and it was all about No. 66. Mario Lemieux powered the Penguins to two Cups in 1991 and ‘92, and the 1992-93 Pittsburgh club won the team’s first (and to-date only) Presidents Trophy for the NHL’s best regular season record with a 56-21-7 record. That was 10 points better than the next best team in the league, and the Pens won their division by a whopping 26 points over Washington.
In a world without ties, the ‘92-93 Pens rolled off a still league-record 17 straight wins at the very end of the season (before a 6-6 tie to New Jersey broke their streak on the last game of the season). No matter, the Pens rather easily disposed of the Devils in five games of the first round of the playoffs, scoring 23 goals (4.6 per game).
At this point, Pittsburgh had won nine straight playoff series. Lemieux, who battled cancer through the season and STILL managed to score a mind-numbing 160 points in 60 while so doing, was performing at levels tough to comprehend by modern standards. The Pens seemed invincible and the buzz was already building into what was developing into a huge marquee matchup in the Stanley Cup Finals with Mario vs. Wayne (now with Los Angeles) for the first time ever.
It didn’t work out that way though, with the Pens tripping up and falling to the Islanders in overtime of a seventh game, one of the most painful losses in franchise history. By now, we all know the story. Kevin Stevens suffering a gruesome and terrible injury (video but it’s not a pretty sight) was an awful but fitting parallel to have the dynasty come crashing down.
Stevens would never really be the same on the ice, and the Pens weren’t either. Lemieux only played 22 games the following season and the Pens lost in the first round of the playoffs that year in 1993-94. Lemieux sat out the entire 1994-95 season and Pittsburgh’s days of serious title contention were basically over (even though there was a nice last gasp in 1995-96 that culminated in a loss in the Eastern Conference Finals).
The wild thing about the 1992-93 Pens is that they were statistically stronger — sometimes considerably so — than the 1991-92 Pens team that was voted best team ever right on this website. Here’s a look at the two from hockey-reference:
The SRS and SOS stats above represent some hockey-reference metrics. SRS is “a team rating that takes into account average goal differential and strength of schedule”. SOS is a rating of strength of schedule. 0 is the even point for both. So based on SRS, the ‘92-93 Pens just mop the floor with the team from the year prior. Results and how the season ends matters, but it’s tough to deny more goals for, less goals allowed, better power play and penalty kill and better goaltending.
In the end, it’s only a what could have been type situation for the Pens and their stunted mini-dynasty. In hindsight, Pittsburgh probably wasn’t going to go on a hugely long run at the top; Lemieux was zapped of energy and couldn’t push through much longer. There were personality conflicts with coach Scotty Bowman (who left the Pens after the ‘93 loss), the ownership was steering into unsound financial waters that would culminate in a bankruptcy in a few years time, a lot of important items were souring or starting to slip.
But that spring a third Cup was there for the taking. Sadly though, the Pens stumbled and would never get back there in that generation of player.