This excerpt from If These Walls Could Talk: Pittsburgh Penguins by Phil Bourque with Josh Yohe is printed with the permission of Triumph Books. For more information and to order a copy, please visit Barnes & Noble, Amazon, Bookshop.org, or www.triumphbooks.com/WallsPenguins.
Heading into the 1991 Stanley Cup Final, we respected the North Stars but definitely felt like we were the better team. They made the playoffs with a sub-.500 record and, somehow, got hotter than hell and pulled off a bunch of upsets in the playoffs. When the series began on May 15, we were feeling good about ourselves. Really good.
Then, of course, we lose Game 1. Our fans were upset, but we really weren’t. Honestly, we were so comfortable in that position. We probably wouldn’t have known what to do if we had won the first game of a series. But we had an issue in all those Game 1 losses: we gave up a ton of goals. We played a loose game defensively and lost 5–4. We fell into bad habits early in all those series. It was our instinct just to see how many goals we could score and, quite honestly, that was good enough on a lot of nights. There’s firepower, and then there’s the kind of firepower we could produce. Only when we got in trouble did we really start to bear down defensively.
Game 2 was a different story and gave us the greatest goal of Mario’s career. I’m proud to say I assisted on it, even if I made the degree of difficulty a little greater. We were up 2–1 in the second period, but the North Stars were starting to press us. We weren’t comfortable just yet. And even though we absolutely thought we were the better team, we couldn’t lose that game. Fall down 2–0 with the first two games at home and you’re pretty much screwed.
Tommy made a save and the puck caromed off his pads, like always. You always had to be aware of that with Tommy. His pads were a little different, and off them, it was like the puck was pretty much bouncing off boards. So, I corralled the rebound. Then, I heard a noise. I knew exactly what that noise meant. The big guy wanted the puck.
Mario had different kinds of yells, and we all knew them. Normally, he would give you a certain yell. It was his way of telling you, “You have time, just give me a crisp pass.” That was the ordinary Mario yell. But every now and then, you’d get a different one. It was more of a loud yip. Short. Loud. More direct. That’s when you knew to get him the f—— puck. So, I heard this noise, and, even though we were in our own territory, I knew to give him the puck as quickly as possible. I only needed to hear it once. It was different than any noise I had ever heard him make on the ice. He really, really wanted this puck. So, what did I do? I got him the puck. It wasn’t a good pass. In fact, I never looked at him. I had a feel for where he was, so I just delivered it in his direction. Remember, Mario had the longest reach of just about anyone who ever played, so I knew if I got the puck somewhere in the 412 area code, he was going to be fine. I just threw it in his direction. The pass was well behind him, but it didn’t matter. He never even broke stride. He reached back and gathered the puck. It didn’t matter that the pass I threw him was a grenade that was almost out of reach. What happened next was hockey history. I was on my way to the bench after I made the pass, but I paused for a second and got a good look at what happened, because I knew he was about to do something special. He never disappointed you in that way. I don’t know what it was, and I actually don’t think he could even tell you why those moments popped up. But every now and then, Mario just felt like putting on a show. I truly believe he had no control over it. For whatever reason, it just happened organically. That was one of those moments. He was absolutely flying through the neutral zone and two defensemen were left in his way, Neil Wilkinson and Shawn Chambers. Those poor bastards never had a chance.
Earlier in the game, Mario had a similar rush and they shut him down. It wasn’t about to happen twice. He put the puck right between Chambers’ legs and blew through both of them. Then, for reasons I’ll never understand, Jon Casey tried to poke check Mario. He kept trying to do it all series. Good luck. Mario went to the backhand and that was that. Never in my life have I, nor will I ever again, see a goal like that. Time stood still for just a moment. On the bench, all we could do was laugh and say, “Holy s—.” That’s it. We had nothing else to say.
Everyone has their favorite Mario goal, and there have been so many:
- The day in Quebec when he carried players on his back and scored
- The day he saved our season in overtime in Washington in 1988
- Going between Ray Bourque’s legs and beating Andy Moog
- The Game 1 winner in 1992 against the Hawks
- His breakaway against the Flyers in 1997 in what we thought
was his last home shift
- The Canada Cup clincher in 1987
Hell, there are hundreds of others to pick from, because no one scored highlight-reel goals like the big guy. Not even close. But that goal was special, both for the remarkable athleticism it required and because of the timing. Game 2, Stanley Cup Final. It’s a close game, we’re in a little bit of trouble, and we desperately need to win. And he pulls off a goal like that. Give me a break.
At that moment, I truly believed we were going to win that series, and I wasn’t alone. We all believed it. If we were playing a powerful team from the Campbell Conference like the Blackhawks or Oilers, it would have been a different story. But we knew we were better than Minnesota.