NHL Viewers Club – Mario Lemieux’s five-goal outburst at Madison Square Garden

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With the 2019-20 NHL season on pause due to the coronavirus pandemic (here’s the latest update on where things stand), we’ve started the NHL Viewers Club, highlighting some of the most rewatchable games from this season — such as when EBUG David Ayres beat the Maple Leafs — along with some cool hockey documentaries on ESPN+. So far, that has included “Big Shot” — covering the fraudulent purchase of the New York Islanders — as well as “Kings Ransom,” which explored the events leading to Wayne Gretzky‘s trade to the Los Angeles Kings.

Today, we’re watching a classic Pittsburgh PenguinsNew York Rangers game available on the ESPN+ streaming archive, which you can watch here.

It’s a vintage performance for Mario Lemieux, as he scores five goals against the Rangers at Madison Square Garden. But it’s perhaps an even more impressive night for the Penguins, who win their 16th straight game — beating the NHL record set by the 1981-82 Islanders. (The Pens, who won the Presidents’ Trophy that season, would go on to win 17 straight, a record that still stands today.) This game featured plenty of star power, sizzle and 14 total goals. We dissect it all, plus debate Lemieux’s status in the GOAT rankings, and explore how the 1992-93 Penguins would fare if they played in today’s NHL.

Favorite random player sighting?

Emily Kaplan: The Penguins’ roster is stacked with familiar names, including two current head coaches (Dave Tippett and Rick Tocchet) and a GM (Ron Francis), not to mention Jaromir Jagr, Mario Lemieux and 1990s ubervillain Ulf Samuelsson.

Since the Rangers would win the Stanley Cup a year later, their roster features a bunch of fan favorites. But I was most amused seeing Joby Messier play with his second cousin Mark Messier on the Rangers. Joby was a former Michigan State defenseman, and his NHL career lasted just 25 games over three seasons (which also included four assists and 24 penalty minutes). According to The New York Times, the two Messiers weren’t exactly close. “It would be a thrill to play on the same ice with Mark Messier,” Joby Messier told the Times in 1992. “We don’t really know each other all that well. I probably know a lot more about him than he knows about me.”

Greg Wyshynski: My favorite random Ranger is Corey Hirsch, playing one of his four career games with the Blueshirts — well, 40 minutes of a game, at least. A “goalie of the future” who was stuck in back of Mike Richter and John Vanbiesbrouck on the depth chart, he would be moved by the Rangers two years later to the Canucks for Nathan LaFayette, and he would play 101 games in four seasons.

My favorite random Penguin (not to be confused with Penguin Random) is Tippett. The current coach of the Edmonton Oilers was in the 10th season of his playing career and took a pay cut as a free agent to chase this first Stanley Cup ring with the Penguins. “I told my wife a long time ago there are two things I want from this game: an Olympic medal and a Stanley Cup,” said Tippett in 1992. He’d win a silver with Team Canada in Albertville, France, that year; but the Penguins were stunned by the Islanders in seven games in the semifinals, and Tippett retired sans ring in 1994.

What was your favorite moment of hockey nostalgia while watching the broadcast?

Kaplan: Jaromir Jagr’s mullet, flowing with the wind, as he turns on the jets for a breakaway goal in the third period. So pure.

Wyshynski: Watching the “under construction” 1994 Stanley Cup champions. Look, as a Devils fan, I have a very conflicted relationship with the ’94 Rangers, or least that’s what my therapist tells me. So it was a kick to revisit the year before “Matteau, Matteau!” and to see a Rangers team that was slowly morphing into the Oilers — Mark Messier, Adam Graves, Kevin Lowe and a newly acquired Esa Tikkanen, with Glenn Anderson and Craig MacTavish still to come. It was fun to see Alexei Kovalev and Hall of Famer Sergei Zubov as pups, and to see future trade assets Tony Amonte and Mike Gartner skating as Rangers. Plus, coach Ron Smith as the forgotten placeholder in between the late Roger Neilson and Iron Mike Keenan.

What were your favorite moments in this game?

Kaplan: I adore Mike Lange’s goal calls. For Joe Mullen‘s short-hander, which opened the scoring, we got: “Joey, Joey Motorcycle!” Larry Murphy‘s tally earned a “Back in the fast lane, Grandma. The bingo game is ready to roll.” On Lemieux’s first goal, we are posed with the question: “How much fried chicken can you eat?” And on Lemieux’s last goal: “If you miss that, shame on you for six weeks.”

But the coolest moment, hands down, was the standing ovation the crowd at Madison Square Garden gave Lemieux for his fifth goal. This was an unmemorable season for the Rangers — they had already gone through a coaching change and were pretty much eliminated from the playoffs by this game. But New York fans are true hockey fans, and they respect truly great performances. Let’s not forget that Lemieux missed two months of play this season as he underwent treatment for Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

Wyshynski: There’s no topping that, so I’ll just go with a weirder one. At 9:46 of the first period, Rangers rookie (and future Penguins star) Alexei Kovalev was tripped up by Pittsburgh defenseman Grant Jennings and slid into goalie Tom Barrasso. The Penguins goalie braced for impact by grabbing the cage behind him. What he actually grabbed was his water bottle, squeezing the life out of that thing as he maintained his balance and, in the process, giving Kovalev a shower as he lay in the crease. The first time you watch, it looks like Kovalev is checking for blood; in reality, he’s wiping goalie water off his cheek. Yuck.

What was the turning point in this game?

Kaplan: When the Rangers couldn’t score on Peter Taglianetti‘s major penalty in the second period, which included 34 seconds at 5-on-3. Expert penalty killing by the Pens, especially an all-out effort from Mike Ramsey, kept the Rangers off the board. Lemieux would score a short-handed goal toward the end, and the Pens would score five straight goals to open the third period to make this a blowout.

Wyshynski: To further Emily’s point, it’s that Lemieux short-handed goal at 16:05 of the second period (and about 58 minutes into the broadcast). What a sequence: Lemieux tries to set up Jennings for a tap-in goal on a 2-on-1, but Lowe manages to knock the puck out before it can cross the goal line. Later, Lemieux has the puck again and gets taken down by Graves. In the words of the Penguins booth: “He got hauled down at center ice. Looked at [the referee], didn’t get the call. Stayed down for a while and that was a break, as it turned out.” Indeed it was, as Barrasso found Lemieux in the neutral zone with a long lead pass as he was at the end of his shift. He went in on Hirsch, faked him out of his skates and completed the hat trick.

Who (or what) are your three stars of the game?

Kaplan:

  • 1. Mario Lemieux. No. 66 was on a mission this game to catch up with some rookie named Teemu Selanne for the NHL’s goal-scoring lead.

  • 2. Mike Lange. I understand why Yinzers love them some “Langeisms.” Grade-A stuff in this broadcast.

  • 3. Joe Mullen. Most ignored hat trick ever.

Wyshynski:

  • 1. Mario Lemieux. Watching Mario score goals was like watching an artist who could create masterpieces in every known medium.

  • 2. Esa Tikkanen. The Rangers defensive forward was on the ice for one New York goal and six Penguins goals at even strength. So, an eventful night.

  • 3. Those hand-drawn Penguins hockey sticks. My favorite strange moment of the broadcast (and 39 minutes in) was during the second period when the Pittsburgh booth was talking about former Oilers who are now Rangers and this random image of decorated Lemieux and Kevin Stevens sticks came on the screen without comment. Turns out the Penguins were using the Rangers’ video feed, and New York’s broadcasters were the ones talking about the sticks. Cue Mike Lange: “Everybody’s looking for a phone number, where to call. We had nothing to do with it, folks!” The cherry on top: They used the random image of the sticks as the jumping-off point to sell an officially licensed Penguins golf putter for the low price of $25 plus shipping and handling.

Where does Mario Lemieux fit into your GOAT rankings?

Kaplan: He’s No. 2, sandwiched between Gordie Howe and Wayne Gretzky. The Great One is my obvious No. 1. Gretzky retired with 61 official NHL records. Today — 21 years later — Gretzky has 60. If that doesn’t make you the GOAT, I don’t know what does.

Lemieux was unique because he had skill, but also the size, reach and physicality that Gretzky lacked. Lemieux was perhaps just as dominant as Gretzky was — and Lemieux’s arrival to Pittsburgh as an 18-year-old singlehandedly revived the franchise — but his career will always be a tantalizing case of “what if?” Lemieux played nearly 600 fewer games than Gretzky, and his career was plagued by injuries and sickness, which caused him to miss prime time in his career. We saw how dominant Lemieux was in this game, and I have no doubt that had he played the entire 1992-93 season, he would have joined Gretzky as the only players to score 200 points in a season. And had Lemieux not come out of retirement, he would have maintained his lead over Gretzky in career points-per-game rate.

Wyshynski: Lemieux is the greatest hockey player of all time and one of the most dominant athletes I’ve ever seen. We use the word “unstoppable” to describe a great number of things in pro sports, but it’s the only way to describe Mario Lemieux in a one-on-one situation. It’s there you see the bottomless deck of dekes in his possession, the way he used his large frame to create space, the stickhandling mastery and the underrated agility he had for a large center. He had Gretzky’s abilities as a playmaker, but Gordie Howe’s shot.

He scored 199 points in 1988-89 when everyone was scoring in the triple digits, and then scored 122 in 1996-97 when no one was scoring like that. As Emily said, the “what ifs” in a career marred by injury and illness are as puzzling as they are frustrating. But when he played, Mario was the best there was. That he made perfection look so effortless is perhaps his greatest attribute.

If the 1992-93 Penguins played in 2020, what does that look like?

Kaplan: This is the greatest Penguins team to not win the Stanley Cup, but I have a hard time comparing teams across eras because the NHL has changed so much. That said, a 2020 Ulf Samuelsson is getting plenty of calls from the Department of Player Safety. The 17-game winning streak would transcend hockey’s limitations and be a daily fixation on SportsCenter.

I also wonder if we’re talking about load management for Lemieux toward the end of the season. Though Lemieux torched the league with 160 points in 60 games after coming back from Hodgkin’s lymphoma, it felt like that season took a toll on him. Then again … who am I kidding? In today’s NHL, star players still don’t want to sit out, and I can imagine the conversation about Lemieux taking it easy for a Presidents’ Trophy team down the stretch would have been a short one.

Wyshynski: Essentially this question becomes: Can a hockey team built for 1992-93 excel in a league that doesn’t even look like that anymore?

Obviously, the high-end stars on the Penguins would excel in any era; and in Jagr’s case, there’s actually proof of concept there. Ditto Scotty Bowman, one of the greatest minds to ever patrol an NHL bench. Something tells me he might be able to figure out how to coach in today’s game. But it’s that back end that concerns me. The modern NHL demands speed and scoring from the blue line. These Penguins lacked that beyond Larry Murphy, who clearly embodied both in scoring 85 points in 83 games. The idea of 6-foot-6 glacier Kjell Samuelsson playing the minutes he played back then in today’s NHL is … well, not a recipe for success. It’s a roster that really needed a guy like Paul Coffey, who starred for the Penguins in their back-to-back Cups (but was now skating for the Red Wings). Again, given the talent up front, behind the bench and in goal, they’d contend. But this team was very much built for 1992-93.

Lingering questions after watching?

Kaplan: Had Brian Leetch played a full season, might the Rangers have made the playoffs this season? The 1992 Norris Trophy-winning defenseman missed 34 games due to a neck injury he sustained in December. He returned for five games, then missed the final month of the season after a freak accident — breaking his ankle when he slipped on ice while getting out of a taxi. Plenty went wrong for the Rangers in the 1992-93 season, which included a coaching change, but it’s fair to wonder if Leetch was in the lineup, could they have won a game like this, not gone 1-10-1 down the stretch and made the postseason? And what chain reaction would that have had? Would GM Neil Smith not hire Mike Keenan in the offseason? Would the Rangers not win the Cup in 1994?

Wyshynski: What happens if David Volek doesn’t score in overtime in Game 7 to lead the Islanders to that upset over the Penguins? Was this Penguins team good enough for the three-peat? That’s tough to say. Keep in mind that they also lost Kevin Stevens to injury in that 1993 Game 7, so his status for the Wales Conference final would’ve been up in the air. They next would have faced the Montreal Canadiens, who went 12-2 after a 4-2 series win over Quebec in the first round, so that would have been a tall order. But if the Penguins had won the conference that would have given us Mario vs. Gretzky in the Stanley Cup Final. Ah, what could have been.



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