Five years ago when they were Philadelphia Flyers, Rick Tocchet, Dave Poulin, Mike Keenan and Scott Mellanby came so close to the Stanley Cup championship they could read the tiny engravings on the clumsy-looking silver bowl.
Before they lost a memorable seven-game final to Edmonton.
Now that the Cup semifinals are about to start, one of their names will go to the engraver. Last night, the Edmonton Oilers began the Campbell Conference championship against the Chicago Blackhawks, and tonight, the Pittsburgh Penguins and Boston Bruins will begin play for the Wales Conference championship.
"It's an unbelievable feeling to be in this position again, (x contending for the Stanley Cup," Tocchet said. "It's great to be in this position again. It's been a long time since '87."
Tocchet was talking in the Penguins' dressing room after scoring two goals in their 5-1 victory over the New York Rangers on Wednesday night at Pittsburgh's Civic Arena. The defending Cup champs had just become the hottest topic of these grueling playoffs by eliminating the favored Rangers, 4-2, in the best-of-seven Patrick Division finals.
Poulin, like Tocchet a former Flyers captain, is a valuable Bruins forward who will be lining up against his old teammate when the series opens in Pittsburgh.
Keenan, the stern taskmaster who coached the Flyers to those '87 finals, is now general manager and coach of the Blackhawks.
Mellanby, who used to be one of Keenan's whipping boys, had a productive season for the Oilers.
None of this season's four survivors has had to break through more obstacles than the Penguins to get this far.
Their season began with the death of their popular coach, Bob Johnson. Then the team was sold to a group headed by Howard Baldwin.
In February, the Penguins went into a free fall, flirting with the potential disaster of becoming a defending champion that wouldn't even make this season's playoffs. The change of coaching styles from the affable, upbeat Johnson to the aloof Scott Bowman seemed to grind down the Penguins. It got so bad that general manager Craig Patrick called a team meeting in February. The significance of the meeting was that Bowman was not invited.
Now, all those obstacles seem like faded pages in the Penguins' history book. They came from three games to one down to beat Washington in the seven-game first-round series. They bumped off the Rangers, the NHL's top regular-season team, after they were just about counted out because of Mario Lemieux's injury. They overcame the loss of Joe Mullen, a 42-goal scorer whose knee was wrecked by a Kris King hit in Game 2 of the Rangers series. They won the last two games without defensive specialist Bob Errey, too. He's out with a shoulder separation. They won the series after they fell behind in games, 2-1, and after they fell behind, 4-2, in the third period of Game 4.
The Penguins, known for their abundance of talent, are now known for their character and resilience as well. It's a tough combination to beat.
"I don't know how we've done it, but this team has enough drive to go through a wall," said Pittsburgh's Kevin Stevens, the top left wing in the NHL.
"I think the Rangers tried to intimidate us, but it didn't work," said Penguins defenseman Kjell Samuelsson, who went to Pittsburgh with Tocchet in the February deal that brought Mark Recchi to the Flyers. "It's nice to remember how sweet it is to be in the playoffs."
Said Tocchet: "It's amazed me how much guts this team has. We took all the Rangers' shots, sticks in the face and stuff like that, and just kept going. I'll take a stick in the face any time if it means a shot at the Stanley Cup. You can always get plastic surgery. You can't always win the Cup. And we know we can do it."