Current Penguins share more than just a jersey with hallowed predecessors from the '90s

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In the past 25 years, only two franchises have won back-to-back Stanley Cups: the Detroit Red Wings in 1997 and 1998, and the Pittsburgh Penguins in 1991 and 1992. Pittsburgh's current players -- who face the Nashville Predators in Game 5 of the Stanley Cup Final on Thursday -- are trying to accomplish the same feat.

The 2016-17 Penguins share more than just that twin title quest and the skating penguin on their chests with their hallowed predecessors from the '90s. There are plenty of parallels between their respective runs, including perseverance, star power and one consecrated figure who unites two generations of the franchise.

"With both teams, there's not a panic when the stage is bigger," said Rick Tocchet, a winger for the '92 team and current Penguins assistant coach. "It's almost a calming situation, knowing that when you get on the ice, you're going to do your part. That's what the superstars do, they calm everybody in the room."

The Penguins have long sought, cultivated and valued marquee talent, a practice that has yielded four Stanley Cups and has the franchise two wins away from a fifth. It started with Mario Lemieux, the man who led Pittsburgh to its first two Cups and has been one of the team's owners since 1999.

"The Penguins have always been intelligent with their star players," said Bob Errey, a left winger who played for the Penguins from 1984-93 and is now one of their TV analysts. "[General manager Ed Johnston] was asked if he should trade away Mario Lemieux back in 1983; could you imagine that? These guys have been really patient with their stars, and that's why the Penguins have been the best franchise in hockey over the past 25 years."

Pittsburgh's firepower was hardly limited to Lemieux then or Sidney Crosby now. Joining them on the NHL's list of top 100 all-time players were Lemieux's teammates Jaromir Jagr, Ron Francis, Paul Coffey and Bryan Trottier. The contemporary Penguins boast Evgeni Malkin -- who, like Francis and Trottier, is a first-line center slotted lower in the lineup.

Good timing for bad fortune and shrewd deals also contributed to the ascent of both championship squads. The Penguins finished Lemieux's draft year, 1984, with the league's worst record. In 1990, they missed the playoffs by one game, leaving them with the fifth overall pick that was used to select Jagr. In 2004, the Pens snagged Malkin second overall thanks to a lousy record -- which rolled over into a 2005 lottery win after the lockout, enabling them to draft Crosby.

In 1991, Lemieux missed more than 50 games after undergoing surgery to fix a herniated disk, forcing other Penguins to elevate their play, much as Malkin's 19-game absence because of an elbow injury did in 2016. In '91, that evaluation period led GM Craig Patrick to brazenly acquire Francis, antagonist Ulf Samuelsson and defenseman Grant Jennings. In '92, during a stretch of just four wins in 18 games, the Pens would make more big moves to bring in the rugged Tocchet.

In 2015-16, Crosby and the Penguins got off to a slow start. In mid-December, they were 15-10-3 and in fifth place in the Metropolitan Division. Phil Kessel -- who had been acquired via trade during the offseason from the Toronto Maple Leafs -- did not yield dividends until he was aligned with two other trade acquisitions, Nick Bonino and Carl Hagelin. That HBK trio was instrumental in helping the Penguins reach the Final.

The Penguins made a coaching change in December 2015, replacing Mike Johnston with Mike Sullivan, the coach of Pittsburgh's AHL affiliate. The '90s Penguins also made a coaching change, but under more tragic circumstances.

Bob Johnson, whose signature phrase -- "It's a great day for hockey" -- still adorns the Penguins' locker room wall, guided the Pens to their first title in 1991. That summer, following hospitalization for a brain aneurysm, Johnson was diagnosed with brain cancer. He died that November. Scotty Bowman, a coach with impeccable pedigree but a very distinct style from that of the gregarious "Badger Bob," took over behind the bench.

"Bob was like your dad, a father figure," Errey said. "He'd ask you what you ate for breakfast, if you took your dog for a walk or took your wife to the movies. He brought a different approach. He was more nurturing."

The disparity made for a rough transition. While Johnson could pull a positive from a lopsided loss and treated his players as friends, Bowman was more rigid, demanding and distant.

"I never took it personal," Tocchet said. "Sometimes [Bowman] wouldn't talk to you for four or five days, but if he saw your parents in the stands he would talk to them for two hours."

Goalie Tom Barrasso injured a shoulder in Game 5 of the opening round of the playoffs in 1991, with the Penguins trailing the New Jersey Devils 3-2. Backup netminder Frank Pietrangelo won Game 6 and then Game 7 on the strength of a dramatic save on Peter Stastny.

That ephemeral goalie drama was upstaged by the present-day Penguins. In 2016, Marc-Andre Fleury gave way to rookie Matt Murray in goal late in the regular season. Fleury had backstopped Pittsburgh to a finals appearance in 2008 and a championship in 2009. But his second concussion of the season sidelined the veteran and opened the door for Murray, who stepped in between the pipes and went on to propel the Pens to their fourth Cup.

This season, a deal current Pens GM Jim Rutherford did not make has been central to Pittsburgh's playoff success. With the expansion draft looming in June, the Penguins had to decide which players -- and specifically which goalies -- to protect. They were at an impasse between Fleury and Murray. Rutherford opted to keep both goaltenders. And both have contributed superb netminding at various points this postseason.

"[Murray's] mind reminds me of Tom Barrasso's," Errey said. "It's a confidence that is unwavering. Matt Murray's got it. Tom Barrasso had it."

The injury-riddled Penguins have again been buoyed by other stand-ins and call-ups in 2017, such as leading goal scorer Jake Guentzel.

"They definitely have guys stepping up all the time and finding ways to win. Even when they were not playing well, they found a way to win," said former Penguins winger Joe Mullen, who won three Cups, two of them with Pittsburgh. "The first game of the finals this year was incredible. [The Penguins] don't get a shot for 37 minutes, but they find a way."

The Penguins have lost cogs such as defenseman Kris Letang, who has been out since undergoing season-ending neck surgery in April. Several other stars have played despite being hurt, including Crosby, who sustained a concussion in Game 3 of the second round. He rested one game and went head-first into the boards in his Game 5 return, but didn't miss any additional time.

Tocchet played the 1992 playoffs with a broken jaw and missed only one game. Samuelsson returned quickly from a broken hand that was supposed to have ended his season.

"I think the end prize drove us all. Any team that wins the Stanley Cup has a lot of ice bags, a lot of bruises and a lot of repair work after the season," Samuelsson said. "The price you pay to play those last two months is a high price. It will hurt."

No player exemplified that persistence more than Lemieux. Before the Pens' first Cup, a bone infection threatened his ability to walk again. Soon after the second Cup, Hodgkin's disease would put his life at risk. In between, he still spent more time on the trainer's table than he did on the ice.

"A big part of our team was that we had the ability to quickly, as a group, flip the switch," said defenseman Phil Bourque, now a radio analyst for the team. "'No Mario? OK, I'll take my game up, you take your game up.'"

Whereas the current Penguins have let some teams linger, the 1991-92 Penguins closed out all eight playoffs series once they had their opponents at three losses.

"We never let a team off the mat," Bourque said. "Part of that was to buy those extra days off because we knew Mario was banged up."

Lemieux was routinely in so much pain that he could not reach for a remote control or lace his skates. That did not prevent him from leading the playoffs in scoring and winning the Conn Smythe Trophy in 1991 and 1992 behind a staggering 78 points in 38 games.

"Something happened when he stepped on the ice that he became almost like Superman," Bourque said.

In 1992, kryptonite came in the form of a slash from the Rangers' Adam Graves that broke Lemieux's hand. Jagr would take it upon his 20-year-old shoulders to deliver one enormous play after another to eliminate New York.

"Especially during that second run, he would be a threat. We had, instantly, two lines that teams were scared to death to play against," Samuelsson said.

Jagr, now 45 and the NHL's oldest active player, would go on to win five Art Ross trophies -- one fewer than Lemieux -- for leading the league in points.

Crosby and Malkin have each won a Conn Smythe Trophy and might add to their collection this year, as they rank first and second in playoff scoring. They have also collected four total Art Ross trophies with two apiece. Much like Jagr, Malkin has picked up the slack when the Pens have been without their captain. When Crosby was out with the concussion, Malkin led the Pens to a Game 4 victory over Washington to take a 3-1 stranglehold on the series.

In 115 career games without Crosby, Malkin has notched 155 points. In the playoffs, he has played without Crosby three times, registering a goal and three assists.

Unlike Jagr -- who arrived from Czechoslovakia with limited English and even less facial hair in a room full of polished veterans -- Malkin has been counted on as a strong voice in the locker room since early in his career.

Both incarnations of the Pens have been adaptable. This season, the team has transitioned from a group whose success was based on speed and a blitzkrieg offense to a sly, counterattacking club that has rope-a-doped opponents and pounced on mistakes to pop into the opposing net. They won Games 1 and 2 despite being outshot, out-possessed and outskated for much of both games by Nashville's superlative defense corps.

The '90s Penguins faced a similar foe in the Washington Capitals, who had the Penguins cornered 3-1 in 1992's first round. Rather than open up Pittsburgh's game in desperation, Bowman instilled a left-wing-lock system that effectively slowed the Caps' freight train of a defense corps.

"All the way down through three pairs, they had the defense who could score goals and defend as well. They were even deeper than Nashville's defense right now," Errey said.

In '91, '92, '09 and '16, the Penguins quaffed bubbly from Lord Stanley's Cup on the road. They sealed series in Minnesota, Chicago, Detroit and San Jose, but never in Pittsburgh. In a documentary made in honor of the franchise's 50th anniversary this season, Lemieux voiced one difference he would not mind seeing between these Penguins and past champions.

"One of these days," he said, "we'll win here in this building."