Lighting The Lamp: Flightless Birds

Crosby Winter Classic, 2011; Lemieux circa 1983; Mario Lemieux McFarlane figure with Penguins Stanley Cup - Rick Ackerman

You might recognize the "Lighting the Lamp" feature from the Game Time paper. Rick Ackerman has been nice enough to send over his column for the website. "Lighting the Lamp" will be featured every home game day.

Lighting the Lamp, with Rick Ackerman

It's hard to believe, yet the last appearance of the Pittsburgh Penguins in St. Louis was in January, 2012, almost two years ago. The Penguins defeated the Blues in a shootout, 3-2, with winger Chris Kunitz scoring the deciding goal against Brian Elliott, who made 37 saves in regulation and overtime. Sidney Crosby did not play and Evgeni Malkin had six shots, but did not score in regulation. Marc-Andre Fleury had 32 saves for the winners. Bonus points to those who are able to remember who scored both goals for the Blues, one shorthanded. Earlier that season in November, 2011, the Blues defeated the Penguins in Pittsburgh, 3-2, splitting the season series. Elliott made 31 saves in that contest, while Fleury had 40. More bonus points to those who can remember who scored the overtime goal to give the Blues the victory.

Pittsburgh and St. Louis were both birthed in the great NHL expansion of 1967. While the Blues' franchise was granted conditionally (the main condition that the new owners, the Salomon father and son, would only get a franchise if they agreed to purchase the old, dilapidated St. Louis Arena for much, much more than it was worth), the Penguins bid was guaranteed even before the NHL decided to double in size that year. As early as spring of 1965, Pennsylvania state senator Jack McGregor began lobbying his campaign contributors to bring NHL hockey back to Pittsburgh. The first professional hockey team in the Steel City was the 1920s Pirates, who relocated in 1930 to Philadelphia as the Quakers and then folded after one season. McGregor's investors included H.J. Heinz III, Steelers' owner Art Rooney and Richard Mellon Scaife, billionaire newspaper publisher. The good-old-boy network was in full effect as the Pittsburgh bid was heartily approved by Chicago Blackhawks owner James Norris and his brother Bruce, owner of the Detroit Red Wings. Part of the agreement included a hefty indemnification payment to the Wings to cover the loss of the Pittsburgh Hornets, Detroit's farm team that would have to be moved. Senator McGregor became the President, CEO and NHL Governor of the Penguins. His wife, Carol, is credited with coming up with the name "Penguins" due to locals dubbing the Mellon Arena the "igloo" because of the domed, retractable roof atop the structure, built in 1961.

Due to strict restrictions on players made available to the six new teams by the six existing teams, the first Penguins team in 1967 was made up of mostly minor leaguers with the exception of aging forwards Andy Bathgate, Ab McDonald and Earl Ingarfield and defensemen Leo Boivin and Al MacNeil. Former Ranger star Bathgate scored the first goal in franchise history. Pittsburgh failed to qualify for the postseason play that first season, finishing fifth in the West, three points behind the Blues, who not only qualified, but also advanced to the Finals, only to be dispatched by a powerhouse Montreal Canadiens club in four games. Each game was decided by one goal due to the outstanding play of Blues' goaltender Glenn Hall, who was awarded the Conn Smythe Trophy as the most valuable player in the playoffs.Despite a plethora of skilled, high-scoring forwards, an overall weak team defense and sub-par goaltending held Pittsburgh to mediocre performances. The Penguins first true superstar was Michel Briere, drafted in 1969. Finishing second for the Calder Trophy as rookie of the year (to Chicago goaltender Tony Esposito), Briere led the team to the playoffs in 1970, leading the team in postseason scoring with five goals, including three game winners. Pittsburgh lost the conference finals to the Blues in six games, but a worse loss occurred 15 days later when Briere was involved in a car crash in Quebec which resulted in severe brain damage. Briere went into a coma and died the following year. Other offensive stars included Syl Apps, Jr., Jean Pronovost, Rick Kehoe and Pierre Larouche.

The 1980s began with a change in colors for the Penguins, who switched from blue and white to the traditional Pittsburgh colors of black and gold, joining the Pirates and Steelers, both coming off world championships. The change did little to help the Penguins' performance on the ice, though, and they finished dead last in both 1983 and 1984. The silver (or gold in this case) lining was the right to choose first in the 1984 amateur draft and there was a young 6'4", 235 lb. center available who had just scored 133 goals and 282 points in 70 games for the Laval Voisins of the QMJHL. Amidst accusations and protests from the New Jersey Devils that Pittsburgh purposely lost games in order to finish last (later substantiated by coach Lou Angotti), the Penguins nevertheless drafted Mario Lemieux, the literal savior of the franchise. Not only did Lemieux lead the club to two Stanley Cups, he also purchased the club when it was on the verge of bankruptcy in 1998. The team owed him $32M in deferred salary, and a deal was worked out in 1999. This made the then-retired Lemieux the first former player to become majority owner of his former team, as well as the President and CEO of the Penguins. And then in December, 2000, Lemieux donned the skates once again to be the first NHL owner to play for his own team. He would permanently retire in 2006.

Another two-goal performance from Patrik Berglund and/or another overtime goal from Alex Pietrangelo would be most welcome tonight if the Blues are to snatch two points from the Metropolitan Division-leading Penguins. Let's Go Blues!!!

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