Mario Monday: Stop The Press!
The night of April 2, 1988 the mission for the Pittsburgh Penguins was simple.
Embedded in one of the tightest division races in team history, the Pittsburgh Penguins comedy of errors had continued as they had yet to make the playoffs in the Lemieux era.
Competing with the Rangers and Devils for the final playoff spot in the Patrick Division, the Penguins laid a complete egg in a home and home series with New Jersey in games 77 and 78 of the 80 game regular season.
They were outscored 11-2 in those two games, and needed to beat the nearly first place Washington Capitals in a road game on April 2, 1988 to have any chance of making the playoffs for the first time in six years.
That night, it was the Mario Lemieux show. But it’s a game that isn’t celebrated the way it should be.
We’ll talk more about why later on.
Mario Lemieux would do what he always did. Rack up points at will and score some of the most beautiful goals you’d ever want to see to try and lead the Penguins to victory and keep their playoff hopes alive.
With the Capitals carrying a 1-0 lead into a power-play, Lemieux evened the score with an absolutely beautiful wraparound goal to make it 1-1. The Penguins were still alive.
Mike Lange sums it up perfectly.
“There is nobody in the National Hockey League that can make that play except Lemieux. Just nobody.”
Lemieux was just getting started. The Capitals were on a power-play when they, again, forgot that Lemieux was on the ice.
Paul Steigerwald called the goal beautifully.
“Lemieux, this time, just had Malarchuk mesmerized. He is so overwhelmed by the sight of Lemieux right now that he just doesn’t know what to do.”
And for his third, Mario would put the Penguins up 3-1 with a power-play goal that sealed the natural hat trick for the star forward.
Mike Lange, again, with a beautiful call.
“Great balls of fire. He’s unbelievable. Again, there are just so few players that can make that play the way that he did.”
But the game wouldn’t be easy. With their playoff lives on the line, the Penguins would squander their lead and find themselves staring at a 6-6 tie in the third period.
What happened next is the stuff legends are made of.
The Capital Centre showed the score of the New Jersey game. They had won. A tie would no longer be adequate.
The Penguins were staring their season in the face and had to win to stay alive.
During a timeout, a heated argument occurred on the bench between head coach Pierre Creamer and Mario Lemieux. Speaking exclusively in French, it appeared that Creamer thought that a tie would keep the Penguins secure in the playoff race.
Lemieux & Co. knew differently.
So the decision was made to attempt to pull the goaltender late in the overtime of a tie game in order to secure the points for the win.
With 1:03 left on the clock, the Penguins goaltender Steve Guenette trapped in his net, Mario Lemieux got the puck on his stick and scored one of the most prolific goals in his storied NHL career.
It was Lemieux one on one against future Penguin Larry Murphy.
And Mario, as always, pulled off a goal that only “Le Magnifique” was capable of.
This time, not even hall of fame announcer Mike Lange could adequately describe what happened.
“I’m out of – I’m out of words.”
The Penguins not only beat the Capitals, they also beat the Hartford Whalers the following night.
But despite the two wins, it wasn’t enough. The Penguins missed the playoffs and one of Lemieux’s best moments got buried in the annals of NHL history.
It paved the way for Lemieux to have what is arguably his greatest offensive effort the next season. The memory of the late goal against the Capitals in overtime long forgotten about.
But it’s a goal that defines what Mario Lemieux was about. Against all odds, a rag tag group group of players surrounding him, Mario Lemieux had his first moment in a long lineage of haunting the Washington Capitals.
It was classic Mario, and it deserves to be remembered for just that.