The Pittsburgh Penguins are the white knights of the modern NHL. They’re the good guys, the triumphant victors. We all know this. Since 1990, no team has had more players win scoring titles. No team has won more than the Pens’ five Stanley Cups championships. They play, they win, they’re the heroes at the end of the movie standing tall.
Yet, surprisingly enough, the Pens aren’t always beloved everywhere. Weird, right? In fact, some players are despised — for reasons valid and imagined. Let’s take a look into these bad boys who have left an indelible mark among other teams, for the wrong reasons. Here are some Penguins who aren’t seen as the good guys and not so fondly remembered.
Primary reason: Taking out Cam Neely, Game 3 of the 1991 Pens/Bruins playoff series
Boston’s hate of Samuelsson, unsurprisingly enough, dates back to his days with the Hartford Whalers, a rival of the Bruins. It boiled over in 1991 when Samuelsson stuck his knee out and took down the big forward.
This hit would be a major turning point in the series, one Boston was up 2 games to 0 entering the night. The Pens would go onto win the next four games to win the Eastern Conference and go onto win their first Stanley Cup.
Unfortunately for Neely, this quad/knee injury was a major derailment of his career. He would only play nine games in the following season, and never really be able to fully return. Eventually he was forced to hang ‘em up after the 1995-96 season at just the age of 30.
The Neely/Samuelsson rivalry was red hot, and usually a fight on sight situation with Neely looking to take out the pain and frustration that Samuelsson caused him and the fans held much vitriol for the rest of his playing days.
Primary reason: breaking Erik Cole’s neck
In March 2006 a hit from Orpik on Cole, left Cole in the hospital and very nearly paralyzed.
Orpik would be suspended three games for the hit. Cole and the Hurricanes were more incensed, so it seemed, by Orpik’s comments after, and failing to reach out and apologize. Here was Orpik’s take on the hit immediately after the game:
“He was driving wide, and I thought he was going to keep going wide,” Orpik was quoted as saying March 6 in The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “He looked over his left shoulder, and saw me coming. It wasn’t like he had his back to me and I knew he was in a vulnerable position.
“I’ve watched the video a dozen times or so, in slow-motion and real time, and I’m committed to going at him. He sees me coming, and he kind of turns — kind of ducks, too — at the last second. I talked to some other guys who said he does that a lot, because he’s such a big, strong guy that he does that, then tries to spin off of you.”
To Cole, this was not a welcomed turn of events.
“I’ve never talked to him,” Cole said. “Honestly, I probably wouldn’t even speak to him.”
He said Orpik waited nearly a month, then attempted to contact him through the veteran right wing Mark Recchi, who was traded to Carolina from Pittsburgh at the March 9 trade deadline.
When asked why he would not accept an apology if Orpik offered one, Cole asked, “Why should I?”
“I am not looking for any apologies or whatever,” Cole said. “I am looking forward to playing him again.”
The story has a happy ending, Cole was able to return late in the 2006 playoffs, just months after a broken freakin neck! — and Carolina won the Stanley Cup. Orpik would go onto win a couple of Cups himself, and with his long career of a physical style, he really only had a couple of questionable or unsafe type of non-clean hits.
Bad blood between the two persisted, with Cole carrying a personal grudge and often pointing out Orpik broke his neck (which, hey, tough to blame). The two dropped gloves for a rare fight, nothing really came of it and they went their own ways.
Epicenter: Everywhere, lol, but especially Boston
Primary reason: General chickenshittery, the Marc Savard hit
The one we all knew was coming, right? No one has been the bigger heel on a hockey rink in recent memory (well, pre-Tom Wilson anyways) than good old Matt Cooke. Cooke’s coup de grace — almost literally — was KO’ing Marc Savard with a technically legal but still totally unnecessary and predatory head shot.
Since the hit wasn’t illegal, Cooke received no penalty or suspension for it, though hits like these created a dialogue and climate for the NHL to actually take head contact seriously and slowly move to penalize actions like this more seriously.
Cooke, of course, has a rap sheet full of more than just this and left a trail of bodies in his wake with dangerous, violent and mostly unnecessary moves. Bleacher Report did a good job compiling it:
But the Savard hit in Boston touched the biggest nerve. Cooke and the Pens were challenged physically for years because of this. While not directly responsible or linked, Bruins/Pens tensions escalated in 2013 to a vicious Shawn Thornton sucker punch on Orpik, sending the Pens’ defenseman off on a stretcher and leaving the Bruin enforcer suspended for 15 games.
Cooke was the genesis of a lot of that bad blood, even being blamed for ending Savard’s career. Nevermind that Savard hid his symptoms and was cleared by Boston doctors and returned to a playoff game against Philadelphia less than eight weeks after Cooke hit him and played a full seven game playoff series in the wake of suffering significant damage.
Regardless, it’s a shame Savard’s career was cut short, surely a process compounded by the hit from Cooke. For his part, Cooke would amend his game after the Ryan McDonagh suspension and commit himself to playing hockey without the antics and bad hits.
And, for what it’s worth (which isn’t much if you’re a non-Penguin fan), it actually worked. Cooke at age-34 scored a career-high 19 goals, added 38 points and cut his PIMs (from 101, 106 and 126 in previous seasons) down to 44. The Matt Cooke story is an interesting one and actually shows that if a player dedicates himself to stop taking liberties and start some basic respect of opponents that they can actually play a solid, productive game otherwise. Imagine that!
Primary reason: Cross-checking Semyon Varlamov in the throat
No fewer than three different Youtube videos have stood the test of time and still exist 11 years after this incident in the 2009 playoff series that would see the Pens defeat the Capitals. Kunitz goes out of his way to go high and give a chop to the goalie. These guys aren’t choir boys!
For Pens’ fans, this is either long-forgotten or never remembered at all. For other fanbases, stuff like this is a black mark to always be remembered. That’s been a fondness for me, to see what pieces of information or little plays like this end up going on the permanent record and what fades away. Kunitz was always a fairly respected, hard-nosed player. Who knows if Varlamov had chopped the back of his legs with a slash or punched him with the end of the blocker earlier in the game? Stuff like that isn’t uncommon come playoff time between guys who compete in front of be net, and their natural enemies in goal.
Epicenter: Philadelphia, but pretty much everywhere
Primary reason: Just being better at hockey than everyone
Fans hating on Sidney Crosby, a tale as old as time! Mostly out of jealousy and scorn for being the driving force in why their team loses so much to the Pens (looks at Philadelphia).
Epicenter: the goal crease, every rink in the world
Primary reason: ??
Can’t get why goalies don’t love this guy? Hornqvist versus goalies is one of the better rivalries going on these days. Once this season, Braden Holtby himself even had to laugh as Hornqvist apologized after a whistle for falling onto him (after been given a little help to fall, but maybe not THAT much help from a defender). How can ya stay mad at that guy?
Who were some of your other favorites over the years that you just knew drove a burr up the ass of the opponents? The Pens have had general rats like Matthew Barnaby, open ice destroyers like Darius Kasparaitis, not really touched in here because there wasn’t any focus, any and every other team hated guys like that. James Neal for Philadelphia might be a good target of villainy for some of the high hits he threw over the years.