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Penguins hoping to learn from Pittsburgh sports history in quest for three-peat

Jonathan Bombulie
| Tuesday, Oct. 3, 2017, 6:48 p.m.
Patric Hornqvist raises the Stanley Cup after the Penguins beat the Predators in Game 6 of the finals.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Patric Hornqvist raises the Stanley Cup after the Penguins beat the Predators in Game 6 of the finals.
Penguins center Evgeni Malkin skates with the Stanley Cup after defeating the Nashville Predators in Game 6 on Sunday, June 11, 2017, at Bridgestone Arena.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Penguins center Evgeni Malkin skates with the Stanley Cup after defeating the Nashville Predators in Game 6 on Sunday, June 11, 2017, at Bridgestone Arena.

Penguins coach Mike Sullivan has a message for those who think pulling off a Stanley Cup three-peat in the modern NHL is nearly impossible.

“There were a lot of people last year when we were going into training camp that were telling us that we couldn't repeat,” Sullivan said. “History was against us. Statistics were against us. But these guys found ways to compete and bring their best effort every day and we ended up repeating with back-to-back championships.

“Our message will be very similar going into this season. Why not?”

The question is meant to be rhetorical, a rallying cry for his players.

But here's a stab at taking it literally.

Why won't the Penguins win a third consecutive championship in June? Because the task is so difficult that even two of the greatest teams in Pittsburgh's sports history couldn't pull it off.

The 1976 Steelers were the most dominant team during a decade of unparalleled excellence in the NFL. They outscored their opponents 234-28 over the last nine games of the season, winning them all and recording five shutouts.

Their season ended in the AFC championship game in Oakland.

The 1992-93 Penguins set franchise records with 56 wins and 367 goals in a season. They won 17 consecutive games in March and April, setting an NHL record for longest winning streak that still stands. They fell to the New York Islanders in the second round of the playoffs.

Uncrowned champs

Franco Harris won't go so far as to say the 1976 edition of the Steelers was the best team he played on. It's hard to give that designation to a squad that didn't win a Super Bowl. But it's probably the team he's most proud of.

Fresh off back-to-back Super Bowls, the Steelers limped to a 1-4 start. In the fifth game, Terry Bradshaw was hurt on a famous body slam delivered by Cleveland's Turkey Jones. In dire straits, with rookie Mike Kruczek taking over at quarterback, the Steelers held a team meeting.

“The guys weren't interested in giving up,” Harris said. “Everybody was saying, ‘OK, the situation we're in right now, if we lose one more game, we're out of the playoffs.' We had nine games to go. We said, ‘Every game we play is a playoff game, and there's no tomorrow. Because there isn't.' ”

The Steelers won all nine games in spectacularly dominant fashion. They scored 29 touchdowns and allowed one.

“It was some of the most incredible football that you could imagine,” Harris said. “With our backs against the wall, we weren't thinking about a three-peat because we could not think beyond that one game.”

In the playoff opener, the Steelers crushed Baltimore, 40-14, in the most Pyrrhic victory in Pittsburgh sports history. Harris and Rocky Bleier were injured in the game.

The Steelers went into the AFC championship game in Oakland with their fourth- and fifth-string ball carriers and lost 24-7.

“If we wouldn't have gotten hurt, we feel we would have won three in a row, which would have been incredible,” Harris said. “And then sometimes we think, ‘Would we have filled the gap and gone for six in a row?' Now that's way out there. Now you're saying that's a little delusional.

“But I'm just saying, with us winning two then winning two more with one in the middle where we felt if it wasn't for losing all our running backs, we feel we would have won three in a row, I don't know. Oakland had a great team that year, but I just felt we weren't going to be stopped.”

The Steelers had another shot at the three-peat in 1980, but by then, the dynasty was over. The opportunity had passed.

“There started to be change. You know you're older,” Harris said. “You know it wasn't that same spirit as '76.”

Dominance derailed

Unlike the 1976 Steelers, the 1992-93 Penguins got off to a fine start off back-to-back Stanley Cup championships, going 8-0-2 to begin the year. They rolled throughout, even while Mario Lemieux missed 24 games after being diagnosed with Hodgkin's Disease, winning the President's Trophy as the league's top team.

Late in the season, they put together a 17-game winning streak, outscoring opponents 96-48. Lemieux had 27 goals and 51 points during the streak to miraculously catch Pat LaFontaine for the scoring title.

With that as backdrop, David Volek's overtime goal in Game 7 of a second-round playoff series was perhaps the most stunning loss Pittsburgh sports has seen.

In hindsight, critics said the Penguins suffered from losing heart-and-soul role players such as Phil Bourque, Bob Errey and Bryan Trottier after the second title.

Winger Troy Loney, who played 82 games that season, thinks the toll taken by the winning streak was more harmful than the personnel losses, though. The emotional tank was empty by the time the playoffs started.

“I think you miss some of it, but it wasn't like we filled the lineup with a bunch of guys that weren't good,” Loney said. “We were killing people, and it wasn't even close. We were beating them so bad. But we paid the price. Probably would have been better if we lost halfway through that thing. We would have been better off. Maybe the coach has to stick a fork in a couple games.”

In that fateful Game 7, the Penguins were in anything-can-happen territory. Kevin Stevens left the game with a gruesome injury when he landed face-first on the ice in the first period. Glenn Healy made 42 saves. The three-peat bid was over.

“They had a couple matchups that I question why we played into those matchups,” Loney said. “They had some guys checking some lines that I think we could have got away from in our home rink, but I think the sentiment on the coaching staff was that we were better than the matchup. We just never got past it.”

Lesson plan

The lessons the current Penguins could learn from the demise of the '76 Steelers and '93 Penguins are pretty clear.

From Harris: Stay healthy. From Loney: Don't get overconfident. From both: Peak for the playoffs.

As for Sullivan's original question — Why not? — Harris hopes the Penguins never get a good answer.

“I'm looking forward to the season,” Harris said. “It's great for our city. For a Pittsburgh team to do a three-peat, that would be so incredible. It would be the first Pittsburgh team to do it. It would be awesome.”

Jonathan Bombulie is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at jbombulie@tribweb.com or via Twitter at @BombulieTrib.

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