The Pittsburgh Penguins were considered to be on the short list to raise the Stanley Cup. They’re led by two transcendent talents, with excellent support players behind them. There’s multiple future Hall of Famers on the roster. By the time they got to the Eastern Conference Finals, they were overwhelming favorites to win the series.
If you think I’m talking about this year’s current edition of the Penguins, you’re wrong. I’ve found myself in recent days thinking back to the 1996 Penguins playoff run. The 2017 Penguins dispatched stiff competition in the first two rounds in the form of the Blue Jackets and Capitals. Everyone has assumed (including me) that they’ll easily get by the Senators and try to go back-to-back in winning the Cup. But I’m flashing back to 21 years ago and how a vastly superior Penguin team lost in 7 games to a scrappy, defensively-minded upstart team in the Florida Panthers.
In May of 1996, I was taking extra summer classes at college to try and graduate early. I was away from Pittsburgh and felt disconnected from the excitement of watching the obscenely talented Penguins make a run at the Cup. The Penguins had an embarrassment of riches in terms of talent, as they had three of the top five scorers in the NHL that year, with the other two (Joe Sakic and Peter Forsberg) being on the eventual Stanley Cup champion Colorado Avalanche. The Penguins were led by Mario Lemieux’s 161 points (69 goals-92 assists), followed by Jaromir Jagr’s 149 points (62 goals-87 assists), and buttressed by the bedrock known as Ron Francis’s 119 points (27 goals-92 assists). To put this in current day perspective, Connor McDavid just led the league with 100 points. Lemieux, Jagr, and Francis’s assist totals would have placed them anywhere from 2nd to 4th in the 2016-17 point leader totals. The 1996-97 season would be the end of the glory days of scoring, as defensive traps and locks and systems came into play in full force the next season.
Contrast that with the Penguins opponent in the 1996 Eastern Conference Finals, the Florida Panthers. The Panthers were only in their 3rd year of existence as a franchise. The majority of their team was built on the back of the Expansion Draft a few years earlier, a model that next season’s Vegas Knights hopes to emulate. The Knights will have even more talent to draw from than the Panthers did in the 90’s. Those Panthers had a bunch of no-names, aside from their goalie, John Vanbiesbrouck (always a personal favorite of mine growing up). The Penguins had a galaxy of high scorers; the Panthers were led by Scott Mellanby’s 70 points in the regular season, a total that would have placed him in a tie for 5th on the Penguins with Tomas Sandstrom, who scored his 70 points in only 58 games.
Mellanby killed a rat before the home opener of the season and scored two goals that night. The team embraced that as a sign of good luck and the fans picked up on it. At times during the playoffs, like in this clip from the Stanley Cup Finals against the Avalanche, the fans would shower the ice with rats when the Panthers scored. It was really annoying.
The 1996 Panthers went through an amazing array of talent prior to getting the Penguins in the ECF. First, they dispatched the Ray Bourque-Adam Oates Bruins in only 5 games. Then they beat the Philly Flyers, fronted by Eric Lindros-Rod Brind’Amour-John LeClair, in 6 games. For that hard work, their reward was the Penguins with all the above-referenced talent, plus Petr Nedved and Sergei Zubov not mentioned until now.
The Penguins on paper should have annihilated them. It was the best edition of the Penguins since the 1993 Penguins that lost to the talent-inferior Islanders in 7 games, thanks to David Volek’s goal from approximately the upper rafters of the Civic Arena. Perhaps both of those Pens teams were too overconfident and overlooked their opponents. But much like three years prior, the 1996 Penguins lost in 7 games, this time to the Panthers, thanks to Tom Fitzgerald’s game-winning goal in the 3rd period. Younger and dumber Kevin was crushed. My two roommates were not interested in hockey at all, so I drank my sorrows away solo.
Fast forward 21 years. Older, slightly-wiser, still dumb Kevin sees a Senators roster with some parallels to that 1996 Panthers roster. No comparison is 100% perfect, of course. The Senators do have one star in Erik Karlsson, the outstanding defenseman that finished 17th overall in scoring in the league this year. Their goalie, Craig Anderson, is top-notch when fully engaged as he is in these playoffs. But other than that, the Senators have little name brand talent on their roster and rely on playing a stifling 1-3-1 defensive system instilled by coach Guy Boucher. The one star-caliber offensive player they do have, Bobby Ryan, had his worst point total in a full season since his debut cup of coffee back in 2007-08 with Anaheim. It’s a team effort to score with them.
This current edition of Penguins are led by Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. They should be able to get past the Senators and compete for another chance to raise Lord Stanley’s chalice, although the injuries are starting to pile up. Here we are with the Penguins trailing 2-1 in the series, just like they were against the Panthers in 1996. The hallmark of this Penguin squad is their mental resiliency, fostered by the excellent Mike Sullivan. I don’t believe they’ll overlook the Senators and they’ll be able to take care of business. Otherwise, history may be doomed to repeat itself.