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My favorite Penguins underdog story: Johan Hedberg

It is underdog week here at SB Nation and we take a look at one of the Pittsburgh Penguins great underdog success stories — goalie Johan Hedberg.

Sabres v Penguins X fans

Looking back on it the 2000-01 Pittsburgh Penguins season was a little wild.

It was the first year of the Ivan Hlinka experience.

The wheels were starting to get in motion for Jaromir Jagr’s exit from Pittsburgh.

The team was off to a mostly mediocre start through the first half of the season.

In mid-December Mario Lemieux came out of retirement and, after sitting out three years and at the age of 35, completely dominated the NHL with one of his best seasons ever at the height of the dead puck era.

They also went on a run to the Eastern Conference Final (after Darius Kaspairaitis, of all people, scored one of the biggest Game 7 goals in franchise history when he beat Dominik Hasek in overtime) thanks in part to one of the Penguins’ all-time great underdog success stories: Starting goalie Johan Hedberg.

While Lemieux’s comeback helped ignite the Penguins’ offense and put them back into a position to make the playoffs and go on a run, it was still a very flawed lineup. The defense lacked a true No. 1 defender, the defense was not particularly deep, and they had a major question mark in goal as Jean-Sebastian Aubin, Garth Snow, and Rich Parent spent the year trying to man the position.

It was not ideal.

Heading into the trade deadline there was a belief that Craig Patrick was going to do something bold to shake up the roster, especially since Lemieux’s return was set to make them a legitimate Stanley Cup contender.

I recall a rumor that they were after Keith Tkachuk before he was traded from Arizona to St. Louis.

There was talk about defensemen and goalies and just about anyone that could put them over the top.

Instead of anything major, Patrick made a handful of small moves including the — at the time — under-the-radar move to send Jeff Norton to the San Jose Sharks for defenseman Bobby Dollas and goalie Johan Hedberg.

They were not the defense/goalie combination that anybody expected.

At the time Hedberg was 27 years old, had never played a game in the NHL, and was buried in the Sharks’ farm system behind Steve Shields, Evgeni Nabokov, Miikka Kiprusoff, and Vesa Toskala.

Nobody expected him to be any kind of an impact player.

But less than a week after the trade the Penguins threw him right into the deep end of the pool and gave him his first NHL start in a game against the Florida Panthers.

He ended up stopping 41 out of 44 shots in a 6-3 win and was given a second start just 24 hours later in Tampa Bay. Even though the second start did not go as well, the Penguins kept giving him chances and he kept rewarding them with outstanding play.

He ended up starting nine of the team’s remaining 12 regular season games and recorded a save percentage of .912 or better in seven of them (.917 or better in six of them) and compiled a 7-1-1 record. It was enough to get him the starting job going into the Stanley Cup Playoffs where the story really started to take off.

There were obviously a ton of questions as to whether that stage would be too big for him given his lack of NHL experience, but it never really seemed to phase him. He played great in the first two rounds against Washington and Buffalo (he recorded two shutouts and had a .915 save percentage) and helped the Penguins get through to the Eastern Conference Final by out-dueling Olaf Kolzig and Dominik Hasek.

But it was not just his play that made him a fan favorite.

It was also the fact that he never got rid of his blue Manitoba Moose mask (he was playing for the Manitoba Moose at the time of the trade), resulting in fans screaming “MMMMMMOOOOOOSSSSSSEEEEEE” after every save.

Johan Hedberg crouches in goal

There were games where the Penguins gave out foam moose antlers at games.

The Heidelberg exit sign on the Parkway was vandalized with spray paint so the only letters visible spelled “Hedberg.”

He became an immediate sensation, going from “who in the hell is this guy?” to immediate fan favorite while playing on a team that boasted two of the 10 best NHL players ever (Lemieux and Jagr) and a couple of other stars (Alex Kovalev, Marty Straka, Robert Lang).

It was all incredibly insane and completely unexpected.

Even though they ended up getting eliminated against a far superior and more well-rounded New Jersey Devils team in the Eastern Conference Final, and even though Jagr was given away a couple of months later, it was still a wildly entertaining season that Hedberg played a major role in.

He would never really repeat that initial success in his two-plus years as the team’s starting goalie, but he still ended up piecing together a fine NHL career for himself.

The Penguins ultimately traded him in August of 2003 to the Vancouver Canucks for a future second-round draft pick in the 2004 class.

It would prove to be a worthwhile move.

The Penguins used that second-round draft pick to select defenseman Alex Goligoski (a pick that was harshly criticized at the time) who would go on to have an outstanding NHL career, including several strong years in Pittsburgh.

That trade chain eventually led to the Penguins trading Goligoski for James Neal and Matt Niskanen.

Neal, after a 40-goal season and a couple of years as one of the league’s elite goal-scorers, was eventually traded for Patric Hornqvist who has played a major role for the Penguins for the past six years, including back-to-back Stanley Cups during the 2016 and 2017 seasons. In the latter, he scored the Stanley Cup clinching goal in Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Final against the Nashville Predators.

All of that came from the under-the-radar trade to get a 27-year-old depth goalie that had never played in the NHL and was given a chance.