It’s funny how history works. If the Penguins didn’t go on to win the Stanley Cup in the 1990-91 season, most Pittsburgh Penguin fans wouldn’t be familiar with “The Save” that Frank Pietrangelo made that turned the playoffs around. If the Pittsburgh Pirates didn’t have a defensive lapse in the ninth inning of the World Series in 1960, the Pirates would probably have a statue of Hal Smith, the guy who put the Pirates ahead in the 8th with a 3 run homer, outside PNC Park, not Bill Mazeroski.
As it turns out, 25 years ago on April 2, 1988 Mario Lemieux had the greatest game and greatest goal of his career. Unfortunately the magnitude of the goal was completely forgotten because of what happened the night after. As it turns out, if you did not witness the game on that exact night, you would not have a clue how great a game it really was. As it turns out, I was a Penguins fan back then, I witnessed it that night, I heard Mike Lange go speechless and I was one of the Penguins fans that had a glimmer of hope for the first time in a long long time. Here’s a little story that has pretty much gone down in folklore with many of the long time fans…
Once upon a time the Pittsburgh Penguins had the darkest 6 years in franchise history, they finished last in their division 3 years in a row, then two years at second to last, and were once again toiling at the bottom of the division. It was the 1987-88 season, the Penguins had 4 games left and if they could sweep the New Jersey Devils in the next two back to back games, they would be in the playoffs for the first time in 5 years.
Mario Lemieux was literally carrying the Penguins on his back all year outscoring the next closest Penguin player by 89 points, the largest difference in Penguins history. Even if the Penguins could split the series against the Devils, they would have a great chance of putting Lemieux into the playoffs for the first time in his career. The Penguins had history on their side. The New Jersey Devils franchise had never ever made the playoffs, not even when they were the Colorado Rockies or the Kansas City Scouts.
As bad luck would have it, the Penguins went on and lost both games against the Devils. There were two games left and there were many scenarios that could still have the Pens landing a playoff spot. You didn’t need to be a math major to know that if the Penguins got three maybe four points the last two nights and if the cards fell correctly they could make the playoffs. Along with those points the Devils needed to lose 1 or both games and the Rangers needed to lose a game. The complicated playoff scenario will come into play later in this story.
The night was April 2, 1988 and the Pittsburgh Penguins were playing the Washington Capitals at the Capital Centre in Landover. At the same time 220 miles away in East Rutherford New Jersey, the New Jersey Devils were at home taking on the NY Islanders. The Penguins got down a goal early in the first period, just to come roaring back when Mario Lemieux had a natural hat trick which consisted of two short handed goals and a power play goal. That in itself would be the greatest evening of most NHL players careers, but Lemieux wasn’t finished.
The Penguins continued pouring it on when Zarley Zalapski made it 4 to 1 early in the second when Hatcher of the Capitals tripped up his own goaltender Clint Malarchuk and Zalapski wristed one in off a great pass from Bob Errey. The Capitals kept themselves in the game getting the next two goals. Paul Coffey back handed a shot through the 5 hole to put the Pens back up 5-3 half way through the second period, just to see the Capitals tie it up 5-5 by the end of the second period.
At the same time over in New Jersey, the Devils were trouncing the Islanders and Penguins could see the numbers adding up on the out of town score board inside Capital Centre. At the beginning of the third Coffey scored on a slap shot from the point to put the Pens back up 6-5. The lead didn’t last long. By the end of the third period the Capitals had tied the game once again and the game was headed to overtime.
Now this is where the legend gets a little distorted as to what actually happened, there have been several different player accounts of the event and of course the Penguins head coach Pierre Creamer’s version of what happened. I will give you the basic gist of what supposedly happened.
I mentioned earlier the complicated playoff scenario. A tie would have been good enough for the Penguins if the Devils lost both of their last two games. About half way through the overtime against the Capitals, the Capital Centre posted the Devils had just won 5-2 on the scoreboard. This prompted several Penguins players to start telling coach Creamer on the bench that they need to pull the goaltender to try to win the game. Creamer knew from his earlier notes that a tie could be good enough but was not taking into consideration that the Devils just won.
With around two minutes left a shouting match ensued between Creamer and several players on the bench. Creamer then got into a heated exchange with Lemieux in French that til this day, everyone assumes that they did finally agree to pull the goaltender.
Lemieux was on the ice right after this exchange. With just a little over a minute left Doug Bodger threw Lemieux a break out pass. Lemieux proceeded to make a move on Larry Murphy that wasn’t shown during Murphy’s Hall of Fame induction. He threw the puck across Murphy’s feet, turned on the jets and skated around him. Then Murphy threw himself at Lemieux’s legs and knocked him over. Lemieux while landing on his back flipped the puck past Malarchuk and the Penguins won the game.
Quite complicatedly the greatest goal Lemieux has ever scored. This is the goal that Mike Lange the Penguins announcer was, if you can believe it, “Out of Words” to describe.
Penguins fan folklore says that as Lemieux skated into the Capitals end the Penguins goaltender was skating off the ice. Folklore also says Lemieux was the one that had the goaltender pulled without coach Pierre Creamer’s consent. Because Lemieux and Creamer’s argument was in French and not recorded, no one really knows and may never know who had the goalie pulled.
Even though the Penguins won the next night at home against the Hartford Whalers, the Devils won in overtime the same night against Chicago. The Pens ended up in last place once again and did not make the playoffs. Pierre Creamer was soon after relieved of his coaching duties.
This game has for the most part been forgotten by most except for the purists. Just like Hal Smith’s home run in game 7 of the 1960’s World Series.
This goal was to the Pittsburgh Penguins what the Immaculate Reception was to the Pittsburgh Steelers. Oddly enough many people aren’t aware that the Steelers didn’t win the Superbowl the year Franco made that catch. Where Steelers fans had a week to relive Franco’s incredible catch, the Pens were eliminated the next night. The Pirates, back when they were big time in Pittsburgh, opened up their season two days later. By then no one had time or cared to give Mario’s goal a fancy name.
I personally watched the game at my brothers house, we knew the Penguins had to win and we screamed at the top of our lungs when they did. I swear on a stack of stinky hockey equipment we went outside and banged pots and pans as is tradition to do in Pittsburgh on New Years. We knew full well not one of our neighbors would know why we were doing it in April.