I remember the incident like it was yesterday.
It was Tuesday, May 5, 1992. Game Two of the Patrick Division Finals. Fresh off a rousing come-from-behind conquest of Washington in the opening round of the playoffs, the Penguins had toppled the Rangers—Presidents’ Trophy winners—in Game One at Madison Square Garden.
They were up 1-0 in Game Two, courtesy of an early goal by Kevin Stevens. The Pens were threatening to score again when New York defenseman Joe Cirella was called for elbowing.
Ron Francis won the faceoff to begin the power play and drew the puck back to Mario Lemieux at the left point. As the Pens’ captain gathered in the pass, Rangers penalty killer Adam Graves skated toward him with bad intentions.
“When I saw Adam coming, I knew he wasn’t kidding around,” Mario recalled.
Wielding his stick like a baseball bat, Graves swung for the fences and caught Lemieux with a wicked two-handed slash across the left wrist. The big center crumpled to the ice in pain, to the jeers of the hostile Garden crowd.
It was the shot heard round the hockey world and seen by all—except referee Dan Marouelli. Instead of banishing Graves, he issued a minor penalty, giving the Rangers the green light to continue their barbaric play.
Moments later, Broadway bruiser Kris King leveled Joey Mullen with a vicious check, tearing up the veteran winger’s knee.
In matter of minutes, the defending Cup champs were stripped of the best player in the world and a 40-goal scorer, future Hall-of-Famers. Visibly shaken by the gut-wrenching turn of events, the black and gold wilted while the Rangers charged back to win, 4-2.
Afterward, the Penguins’ worst fears were realized. Lemieux had a broken bone in his hand. Mullen required knee surgery. Both were out for the foreseeable future.
Speculation was rampant that New York coach Roger Neilson, who had a well-known affinity for back-alley tactics, had placed a bounty on Mario.
“You are supposed to go for the hands,” Neilson said, callously defending Graves’ actions. “It’s great not having to worry about Lemieux.”
Even now, the hatred bubbles to the surface. United in righteous anger, Penguins nation seethed. Fans screamed for retribution. “Bury Graves” read one of the many placards on display at the Civic Arena for Game 3. Others suggested far worse.
The league acted swiftly, suspending Graves for four games. It seemed a ridiculously light sentence for such a willful and wanton act of violence. Already stoked to a white-hot pitch, rage among the Steel City populace escalated to near nuclear levels.
Amid the boiling cauldron of emotions, Penguins coach Scotty Bowman urged his players to forget about revenge.
“Putting the puck in the net is the worst aggression to another team,” he said. “We want to put more pucks into the net.”
Forward Phil Bourque echoed Bowman’s pleas.
“I think the best revenge would be to just beat them in the series,” said the ol’ Two-Niner.
Twenty-five years later, the names have changed, but the plot remains remarkably the same.
Another Penguins superstar, arguably the best player in the game, is out. Hurt on a borderline play that, to the naked eye, appeared nothing more than a deliberate intent to injure. Igniting similar passions among the Penguins’ faithful.
Once again, the message from our coach is clear.
“We’re just going to play the game,” said Mike Sullivan, affirming his oft-repeated mantra following Monday’s 3-2 overtime loss. “We’re going to play the game hard, and we’re going to do everything we can to win hockey games.”
To that end, the Pens recalled forwards Josh Archibald and Oskar Sundqvist from Wilkes-Barre/Scranton. Conspicuously absent from the call-ups? Heavyweight Tom Sestito, who beat up Capitals bad boy Tom Wilson during the 2016-17 season opener.
The moves mirror those of then-GM Craig Patrick back in ‘92. He, too, opted for a turn-the-other cheek approach. Instead of plugging the gap with mammoth enforcer Jay Caufield, Patrick summoned forwards Jock Callander, Dave Michayluk and Mike Needham from the Muskegon Lumberjacks.
Dubbed “the Muskegon Line” by the local press, the trio would soon play a pivotal role.
With the Penguins down 2-games-to-1 and all but out in Game Four, Needham beat Rangers goalie Mike Richter on a second-effort tally to trigger an improbable comeback. Displaying remarkable resilience and character, the Pens won three-straight to oust New York.
Then Mario returned in glorious fashion. With No. 66 leading the way, we swept aside Boston and Chicago to capture our second Cup.
Let’s hope history repeats and the good guys prevail again.