Rick Tocchet was watching from a hotel room during a rare night off from his television duties. Kevin Stevens was watching from home in suburban Boston. Phil Bourque was in COVID-19 protocol, watching from home instead of his typical perch in the Penguins broadcast booth.
When Jacob Trouba took out Sidney Crosby, their minds all raced back in time three decades. It was all too familiar, a superstar being eliminated while near the height of his power at Madison Square Garden, the Penguins suddenly facing a massive roadblock when poised to advance past the Rangers.
Thirty years before Trouba injured Crosby, an Adam Graves slash broke Mario Lemieux’s hand. Without their captain, the Penguins toppled the Rangers anyway, ending the series on May 13, 1992, at the Civic Arena. The Penguins of the past hope the current team will follow their path.
“Same damn date,” Stevens said, his thick Boston accent as piercing as the gut punch those Penguins felt when Lemieux went down. “I hope there’s some magic in the city for this game the way there was for us back then.”
In the spring of 1992, Lemieux looked unstoppable. The Penguins had fallen behind Washington, 2-0, in the first round of the playoffs. They responded by eliminating the Capitals in a dramatic seven-game series, with Lemieux erupting for 17 points in the final six games of the series. Then, the Penguins went to New York and won Game 1 against the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Rangers. Stevens scored 89 seconds into Game 2, and the Penguins had just been awarded a power play.
Graves then unleashed his infamous slash. Bourque and Stevens would later become Graves’ teammates in New York and, like the rest of the hockey world, speak highly of his character.
Graves, through a Rangers spokesperson, declined to be interviewed for this article.
“Clean guy,” Stevens said. “Everyone loves Adam Graves, and for good reason. One of the nicest guys I’ve ever met. I mean that. Incredible guy. You’d want him on your team. Competitive. Clean. But that doesn’t change the fact that he gave Mario a fucking two-hander. Of all people, I couldn’t believe it. Gravy wasn’t one of those guys. ”
So why did he do it?
Bourque draws a comparison to the current series.
“Former Rangers coach Roger Neilson challenged them back then,” Bourque said. “Challenged them as men. Gerard Gallant did the same thing after Game 4. There’s no denying that the message was sent through the media, calling his team soft. He knew that would light a fuse under certain players, especially Trouba. So, he elbows Jake (Guentzel) on the game’s first shift. ‘I’ll show you who’s soft, coach.’ Same thing with Gravy. You could tell him, ‘Hey, I need you to go to Brooklyn Bridge and jump on a barge.’ He’d do it. He’d literally do what he was told. He was young and trying to establish himself. He was just that guy. Was there a hit on Mario? No. Was there a bounty on Mario? No. But if you had a chance to hurt Mario, were you going to do it? Yes. ”
Like Lemieux three decades earlier, Crosby sat on the bench for a few minutes before departing for the locker room. Crosby even took a couple of shifts before realizing something wasn’t right. Lemieux didn’t hit the ice again, his hand clearly broken. With Lemieux writing in pain on the bench and the Madison Square Garden crowd chanting “bullshit” because Graves was assessed a two-minute slashing penalty, then-Penguins coach Scotty Bowman frantically yelled at Ron Francis, “It’s broken! It’s broken! ”
Head athletic trainer Skip Thayer tried to get Lemieux to hold an ice bag on his hand, but Lemieux was in too much pain.
The shellshocked Penguins lost Game 2. Then, they lost Game 3 in overtime on Kris King’s goal. Graves opened the scoring in that game. Finally, after Game 3, the NHL took it upon itself to suspend Graves for the remainder of the series. By then, many in the hockey world believed too much damage had been done.
It turns out the Penguins were just getting started.
Tocchet was new to the Penguins, acquired three months earlier. He missed the first three games of the Rangers series because of a shoulder injury.
Sitting in the Madison Square Garden press box during Game 2, Tocchet was like a caged animal when Graves took out Lemieux.
“You must understand that I love Adam Graves,” Tocchet said. “Wonderful person. At the time, though, I had to tell you, I was angry. Very, very angry. That was the best player in the world they took out. It’s hard for me to explain how livid we were. ”
Bowman held a team meeting before Game 3 and implored the Penguins to ignore Graves, and to win the game.
“Scotty knew what he was doing,” Tocchet said. “It was the right approach. We didn’t really go after Graves. There could be a time and a place for that kind of thing down the road. And we wanted revenge. But revenge wasn’t going to come in the form of hurting Adam Graves. Our philosophy was, ‘OK, fuck you, Rangers. You aren’t winning this series. There’s no way you’re beating us. No way. ‘”
Two Mark Messier goals gave the Rangers a 4-2 lead in the third period of Game 4 in Pittsburgh. Things looked bleak. Then, Francis beat Mike Richter from the blue line. Jaromir Jagr set up Troy Loney to even the game.
In overtime, Francis took advantage of a Messier turnover to finish off a hat trick and send the Igloo into bedlam.
“We channeled the anger properly,” Tocchet said. “You know, that’s the secret. That’s what the Penguins need to do on Friday. Seriously. Sully (Mike Sullivan) needs to make sure they have their anger channeled properly, and he will. They had better be angry. If you aren’t angry about what happened to Sid, then Sully shouldn’t dress you. That series was over before Sid got hurt. Everyone knows it. But you have to channel that anger if you’re the Penguins right now. ”
That’s what the 1992 Penguins did.
In Game 5 back at the Garden, Jagr scored twice, including his classic winner in the third period to give the Penguins a 3-2 lead, sticking his middle finger at the Rangers bench after he scored. Channeling anger takes on different forms, after all.
“That was the moment he became a man,” Bourque said. “We needed him. That was the moment he became a superstar. He never looked back. ”
Then came May 13.
Stevens had a routine on game days in Pittsburgh, getting coffee before the morning skate. He lives in Boston now but still works as a scout for the Penguins.
Those playoff game days, Stevens will tell you, represented the happiest times of his life.
“I’m not in Pittsburgh so much these days, so I don’t know how it is anymore,” he said. “But I know how it was. Back then, we weren’t making crazy amounts of money. We were part of the community. Those people in the crowd were our drinking buddies. And that series in particular? Christ, the whole city was behind us. Everyone was mad about what happened to Mario. Everyone. And when it got to Game 6 in Pittsburgh, there was no way the crowd was letting us lose that night. ”
The emotion created by a raucous crowd, Stevens said, is real.
“The whole place was packed after warmups,” Stevens said. “My locker was close to the door. And I was the first guy on the ice after Tommy (Barrasso) took the ice. We could hear the crowd from the locker room. Place was shaking. You better believe it made a difference. ”
Tocchet scored twice that night in a 5-1 victory.
“Everyone thought we were dead,” Tocchet said. “Everyone. But Pittsburgh was united because of what happened to Mario. I was so fired up for that game. But I remember in the second period, I was starting to feel a little tired. The adrenaline was wearing off a little bit. But then the crowd just started going crazy. Incredible crowd that night. Hearing them in the second period, it kind of kicked me in the ass. Got me going even more than it did before. I felt them. ”
It could be argued that, for a short period of time in the early ’90s, the Rangers joined the Flyers as the Penguins’ biggest rival. Two incidents – David Shaw’s slash to Lemieux’s throat in 1988 and the Graves slash – fueled the fire.
“Even Philly never put a bullseye on Mario the way the Rangers did,” Bourque said.
The Blueshirts were not welcome in Pittsburgh on that night.
“That kind of energy from a crowd is a real thing,” Bourque said. “You play hockey your whole life, hundreds or thousands of games. The crowds keep getting bigger and louder the older you get. But that kind of energy? It’s a hard thing to explain. But it got inside of us in that series. ”
Crosby was playing his best hockey in years before Trouba’s hit his head knocked him out of Game 5. It wasn’t just the nine points he produced in the first four games of the series, but rather, it was the way he looked.
There was a speed, a power and a precision to Crosby’s game that produced reminders of his younger days. It was clear that Crosby was healthy, feeling good about himself and intent on leading the Penguins on a Stanley Cup run. He just had that look, one that Pittsburgh and the rest of the NHL know all too well.
Game 3 of the series was televised by TNT, where Tocchet is a studio analyst.
“I actually texted Sid after that game,” Tocchet said. “I told him that he had just put on a clinic in terms of how to play the center position, that it was pretty much a perfect display of hockey. The way he was taking it to the Rangers? Oh my God. They had no answer for him. None. The ice was tilted the whole time. If anyone wants to know how you win hockey games in the playoffs, they should have been watching what Sid was doing earlier in this series. I’ve never seen anything quite like it. ”
Crosby texted back, thanking Tocchet for his kind words. Little did Crosby know what would happen next.
And Tocchet didn’t like what happened.
“I think it’s different if we’re talking 10 or 20 years ago,” Tocchet said. “But the game is supposed to be different now, and you’re not supposed to be able to hit someone in the head like that.”
Trouba was not punished by the NHL and will play in Game 6.
“It just sucks,” Tocchet said. “And it’s a problem for the Pens and for Sully. See, when a team is making a push, Sully just puts Sid on the ice. And it works. He knows Sid will settle things down. Who is the calming influence if he’s out? Geno’s (Evgeni Malkin) great, but he’s not that guy. Jeff Carter isn’t playing real well right now. So who is it? They lose that intangible, and it’s a big deal for me. ”
Tocchet, though, isn’t counting his former team out.
“The thing is, the Penguins have been the better team in this series,” Tocchet said. “There’s no doubt about that. And yeah, the crowd can make a difference. It’s going to be a fired-up crowd, an angry crowd. We’ll learn a lot about these guys. If they channel that energy the way we did a long time ago, I think they can win this game with or without Sid. But channeling that energy is the key to everything. ”
He speaks from experience.
“We could win without Mario just like these guys could win without Sid,” Stevens said. “You don’t want to be without those guys for a long period of time. They’re the best for a reason, you know? But on one night, if you’re without them – or even if they can play but they aren’t 100 percent – a team can come together and find a way. I’ve seen it before. I’ve felt it before in Pittsburgh. I hope the city gets behind these guys tonight like they got behind us in ’92. That would be awesome. ”
(Top photo of Mario Lemieux: Getty Images)