Before the NHL instituted a salary cap and teams could acquire and hold onto talent for longer periods, the great squads seemed to figure out how to win Stanley Cups and continue to pile them up, as if by inertia. The Montreal Canadiens won four straight Cups to close out the 1970’s, then turned it over to the New York Islanders who won four straight Cups of their own to start the 1980’s. After that came the rise of the Edmonton Oilers who strung together five championships in the following seven years.
The next dynasty was set to be the Pittsburgh Penguins, led by Mario Lemieux. After years of irrelevance, the Pens punched through and won the Cup in 1991, and then did it again in 1992. They might have peaked in the 1992-93 regular season with an NHL record winning streak, an easy Presidents Trophy win (the only one in franchise history). For all the world it was looking like the playoffs would be a coronation for the Pens’ third straight title and settling in as the latest of the league’s dominant dynasties.
The story didn’t have a happy ending and the Pens’ season came to a shocking and abrupt halt. Game 7, overtime, David Volek. You probably already know.
Tim Benz at the Tribune Review had a talk with Kevin Stevens about it. Stevens, famously, got knocked out on a hit and then his face smashed into the ice in one of the most grizzly and unfortunate injuries in playoff history.
“I remember like it was yesterday. We’re up three (games) to two. Game 6 on the Island. After two periods, they come out and pump three in. They beat us (7-5) in Game 6. That was the one,” Stevens said during a phone call last week. “Game 7? Yeah, sure. We shoulda won that. But you can’t get to Game 7.”
But the Penguins did let it get to a Game 7 — much like the recording setting 2023 Boston Bruins did against the Florida Panthers — and anything can happen in a Game 7.
Pittsburgh and Stevens would find that out the painful way. Stevens crashed to the ice and jarred the team, the Pens fell behind 3-1 to the Islanders. Pittsburgh would battle back to force overtime, only to concede an unlikely goal from an unlikely player in an unlikely spot (to put it kindly).
Just like that, the dreams of a dynasty were over. Stevens would never be the same as a player or as a person, with the injury triggering an addictive nature that would challenge him for years. Despite being a playoff-quality team, outside of a playoff in 1996, the Lemieux-era Pens would never seriously come close to another Stanley Cup.
In the end, it’s another lesson that winning in the NHL is hard. Even for the best teams ever assembled, it is always a super fine line between moving on and having your heart (and maybe face) broken. On this day 30 years ago, that lesson was on display with the Pens on the tough end of that.