Tim Benz: Penguins veterans weigh in on Lightning’s quest for Red Wings’ record
The version of the Detroit Red Wings we will see Thursday night at PPG Paints Arena couldn’t hold a candle to the 1995-96 club that set the NHL wins record of 62.
Although you may have thought so Tuesday night, when this year’s 32-win edition of the franchise dusted the Penguins, 4-1, in Michigan.
As these current Red Wings face off against the Penguins at 7 p.m., the former members of that record-setting club may be more interested in the result of the Tampa Bay game in Toronto.
At the same time, the Lightning will visit the Maple Leafs with 60 victories and two games remaining. So they still have a chance to tie that Detroit club, or at least break the second-place tie they are in with the 1976-77 Canadiens (60).
“I think every facet of their game, from the goalie out, they have depth in every area,” Penguins captain Sidney Crosby said of the 2018-19 Lightning. “They’ve had consistency throughout the year. They’ve got some guys who are having incredible years individually. You combine all that, and you put yourself in a position to do something like they have done so far.”
That’s a significant compliment coming from Crosby. Not only does he have three Stanley Cup rings, but he grew up a big fan of Steve Yzerman and remembers those mid-90s Detroit teams well.
“Their lineup was pretty stacked,” Crosby said. “You look at Tampa, and a lot of the years those guys are having, it’s very similar in that way. They’ve just cruised through the whole year.”
Stacked? Indeed. The roster boasted Yzerman and six other Hall of Famers, including former Penguin Paul Coffey. He had 74 points in 76 games as a 34-year-old defenseman that season.
“Every line they rolled over the boards, they could score,” Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said. “They had a lot. They were really good.”
Sullivan played against that era of the Wings a lot while he was with the Calgary Flames. Radio color analyst and former Penguin Phil Bourque was in his last NHL season as that Detroit team was setting the wins record.
“They would beat a lot of teams in their morning skate,” Bourque said. “It was like the Harlem Globetrotters. If you ever watched them in the morning skate, you were halfway beaten right then. It was superior to anyone else. To beat them, you had to have the game of your life, and they had to have the worst game of the season. They were like a machine.
“Every pass was flat. Every pass was on the tape. And you found yourself, as the opposition, watching. A lot.”
Penguins veteran Matt Cullen missed that Detroit squad. But as a rookie, he got the Stanley Cup-winning version of the team two years later.
“I remember never having the puck, ever,” Cullen joked when I asked him what he recalled of those Detroit clubs. “(Nick) Lidstrom would have it. And you never would.”
Having played against the Wings of that era and this season’s Tampa team, Cullen says the Bolts are worthy of matching the record, even if they have six shootout victories. Detroit couldn’t use shootout wins to inflate their total since ties were still in existence back then.
“They just score at an unbelievable rate, and they are so dangerous offensively,” Cullen said of Tampa’s NHL-leading 316 goals and plus-98 goal differential. “The numbers don’t lie. Their goal differential is through the roof. It’s hard to argue against it.”
Even Penguins forward Bryan Rust — a Michigan native — who was reared on the legends of those Red Wings teams, tips his cap to the chase put forth by Tampa this year.
“They can beat you in so many ways,” Rust said. “They have such good depth and team speed. They can beat you 6-5 and beat you 2-1.”
But, as Rust pointed out, that Red Wings team didn’t win the Stanley Cup that year. Nor did the Detroit team that claimed the Presidents’ Trophy the year before.
“It’s funny how things work out,” Rust said with a smile.
So, yes. If these Penguins face the Lightning in the playoffs, they can cling to that truth. Or another one Rust may have had in the back of his mind: eliminating the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Capitals in 2016 and 2017. He could’ve been remembering the Penguins beating the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Red Wings in 2009, too.
And in Pittsburgh, we all remember the Penguins vs. the Islanders in 199 …
Nah. Let’s not go back that far. You get the point.