Sure, becoming the first back-to-back Cup winners in nearly two decades is historic. Still, it’s just two. Three straight? Well, that’s something else entirely. And the man whose arrival in December 2015 coincided with Pittsburgh’s ascendance back to the top of the NHL knew it.
“I wonder if we can repeat, if we can ‘three-peat,’” Sullivan said.
Only he wasn’t wondering. He was challenging Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Matt Murray and the rest of the core that has a chance to win three consecutive Cups for the first time in the NHL since Mike Bossy led the New York Islanders to four straight from 1980-83.
And the message rang through loud and clear. The way Sullivan’s captain figures it, facing that kind of internal pressure sure beats the opposite, even if Crosby isn’t quite ready to start thinking about what doing something his boss (Penguins owner Mario Lemieux), his idol (former Red Wings center Steve Yzerman) and the greatest player of them all (Wayne Gretzky) never did.
All three had their shots at a three-peat. All three came up short, if winning “just” two straight Cups qualifies.
“You don’t need to spend a lot of time looking back and comparing and things like that,” Crosby said. “You can do that when you’re done playing.”
Let’s do it anyway. No team has even reached the Cup final three successive springs since the Islanders finished off Gretzky and the Oilers on May 16, 1983, for their fourth championship, a time when the path from burgeoning power to dynasty was far shorter than it is now.
There were only 21 teams in the league in 1983, not 31. There was no salary cap, allowing teams to stockpile all the talent they could afford. Globalization hadn’t yet reached the league. The Islanders’ last Cup team featured players from three different countries. Last spring’s Penguins had eight.
Oddsmakers have made Pittsburgh the early favorite. The Penguins insist they’re focusing on the opener Wednesday against St. Louis. Worrying about becoming a true “old school” dynasty is at the bottom of the list of their concerns.
“The historical chips will fall where they may,” defenseman Ian Cole said.
A quick look at where they fell for the last four teams eyeing a three-peat of their own:
THE TEAM: 1985-86 Edmonton Oilers
THE RESUME: Led by Gretzky and Mark Messier, went a combined 30-7 during consecutive Cup runs in 1984 and 1985.
THE SEASON: Posted NHL-best 119 points to win Smythe Division for fifth straight time behind record 215 points from Gretzky.
THE END: Faced rival Calgary in division finals. Dropped Game 1 at home and spent the rest of the series trying to catch up, falling 3-2 in Game 7. Edmonton rookie defenseman Steve Smith scored an “own goal” when his crossing pass bounced off goaltender Grant Fuhr and into the Edmonton net. Calgary’s Perry Berezan was credited with the winner as the last Flames player to touch the puck.
THE LEGACY: The loss was more of a hiccup than anything. A year later, the Oilers were at it again.
THE TEAM: 1988-89 Edmonton Oilers
THE RESUME: Won the third and fourth Cups of the Gretzky-Messier Era in 1987 and 1988.
THE SEASON: Gretzky was traded to Los Angeles shortly after leading the Oilers to their fourth Cup in five years. The hangover was palpable. Edmonton went just 38-34-8 to finish third in the Smythe.
THE END: Messier and company faced Gretzky and the upstart Kings in an emotionally charged opening-round series. The Oilers took a 3-1 lead in the best-of-seven only to get outscored 14-6 over the final three games as Gretzky fueled a rally. The Great One opened Game 7 with a goal 52 seconds in and finished off his old team with an empty netter.
THE LEGACY: Messier emerged from Gretzky’s shadow the following year, sweeping the Kings in the division finals before topping Boston to give the Oilers their fifth — and final — Cup in a decade.
THE TEAM: 1992-93 Pittsburgh Penguins
THE RESUME: Needed Game 7 wins in the first round in both 1991 and 1992 to advance, then stormed to the first two Cups in franchise history.
THE SEASON: The greatest team of the Lemieux-Jaromir Jagr duo won an NHL-record 17 straight games from March 9-April 10 to finish with a league-best 119 points. Four different Penguins (Lemieux, Kevin Stevens, Rick Tocchet and Ron Francis) scored at least 100 points, with Jagr at 94.
THE END: Breezed past New Jersey in the first round and seemed in control against the New York Islanders after a 6-3 victory in Game 5. The Islanders won at home to force a Game 7. Pittsburgh trailed by two late in the third but rallied to tie it on Tocchet’s goal with 1 minute left in regulation before David Volek buried a 2-on-1 5:16 into overtime to pull off one of the biggest upsets in playoff history.
THE LEGACY: Lemieux never made it back to a Stanley Cup final as a player. Then again, things could be worse. Crosby has guided the franchise to three finals during Lemieux’s ownership.
THE TEAM: 1998-99 Detroit Red Wings
THE RESUME: Led by Yzerman, Sergei Fedorov and Nicklas Lidstrom, the Red Wings survived a brutal Western Conference fight to sweep Washington 1998 for a second straight Cup. (Yes, the Caps did make the finals once).
THE SEASON: Captured the Central Division with relative ease and brought in Chris Chelios at the trade deadline to give them some grit along the blue line.
THE END: Swept Anaheim in the first round and took a 2-0 lead over rival Colorado in the conference semifinals. Goaltender Bill Ranford, starting while Chris Osgood recovered from a sprained right knee, fell back to Earth in a 5-3 loss in Game 3 and Detroit never recovered even after Osgood returned.
THE LEGACY: Kept the gang together long enough to win the Cup again in 2002 with the oldest roster in the league (average age, 31.9). Lidstrom nearly quarterbacked Detroit to consecutive Cups in 2008 and 2009, though its repeat bid in 2009 ended with a Game 7 loss to the Penguins.
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