The conflict between the New York Islanders and Pittsburgh Penguin dates back to 1975, when the third year Islanders came back from a 3-0 deficit to eliminate the Penguins in the second round of the playoffs and became a sports trivia staple.
As the Islanders continued to rise in prominence throughout the 70’s, the Penguins languished in mediocrity. In the 1982 playoffs, Pittsburgh had the two-time Stanley Cup champion Islanders on the ropes in a deciding Game 5 before John Tonelli tied and then won the game in overtime to again send the Penguins packing. The Islanders went on to win two more Cups.
Some guy named Mario Lemieux showed up in Pittsburgh in 1984 and literally saved the team, helping them build a winner that culminated in back-to-back championships in 1991 and 92. When the Islanders had a chance to derail a dynasty, they took it, bouncing the Pens in the second round of the 1993 playoffs on David Volek’s overtime goal in Game 7.
Recently, the rivalry has been much more one-sided, with the Penguins routinely using the Islanders as their own personal in-division punching bags (seriously, they built a statue about it). Even when Pittsburgh suffered through their second (third? fourth?) bankruptcy period in the early and mid-2000’s, the mediocre Islanders were never good enough to really take advantage of them.
The Penguins have been a frequent subject of our trademark parody posts - known as the Lighthouse Zeitgeist - over the years. So before the teams renew relations again this spring in their fifth all-time playoff series, I thought it’d be neat to take a look at some of the fun we’ve had with The Flightless Fowl.
Let’s get meta!
I started writing for Lighthouse Hockey in 2012 and, thanks to the lockout, didn’t get a chance to write about the Penguins until 2013. Of course, Sidney Crosby was prominently featured. The current Penguins captain immediately picked up where his predecessors Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr had left off, building a career that would be Hall of Fame-worthy even if the only team he had ever played was the Islanders.
To date, in 66 regular season games against the Islanders, Crosby has 36 goals and 77 assists for 113 points. Holy crap.
After a five-assist performance in a 6-1 Penguins victory in March of 2013, I made the NHL make it official, awarding Crosby co-ownership of the Islanders, the team he had been bossing around since he entered the league in 2005:
“Sidney Crosby is the exact type of owner we need in this league,” NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said in a statement issued from Crosby’s hot tub in suburban Pittsburgh. “He brings the heart, determination, financial stability and once-in-a-lifetime playing skills that we wish all owners would have.
”The Islanders are obviously in good hands with Sidney. In fact, his hands are so good, he’s expected to earn two more assists against them when New York plays Tampa Bay on Thursday.”
As luck would have it, the Islanders and Penguins would play each other in the first round of the playoffs that same year. Pittsburgh was looking to regain their Stanley Cup form of a few years prior, and the Islanders were making a surprising reappearance in the post-season for the first time in five seasons.
Before the series, I wanted to connect the teams via a man who played important roles for each of them during their most successful eras. But I also wanted to comment on the disparity in media coverage between a crown jewel franchise and an often neglected step child.
So I effectively erased Bryan Trottier’s Islanders days.
Trottier re-signed with Pittsburgh following that first title and he brought the same solid, responsible play to the Penguins as they repeated as champions the next season. Another three goals and four assists in 21 playoff games in 1992 earned Trottier another ring after the Penguins’ sweep of the Chicago Blackhawks. Not bad for an anonymous role-player.
I’m not sure how many people got the joke (or the Mr. Belvedere reference I slipped in there), and wondered if this was yet another example of me overthinking a bit. But all of those quotes were from real stories from Trottier’s Penguins days. I’m pretty sure the Islanders were mentioned in every one of them, so it wasn’t easy working around them. And for the record, I’m eternally grateful that Bryan Trottier was and is still an Islander.
Pittsburgh ended up winning the back-and-forth series in six, mainly because they were the only team employing a goalie capable of allowing less than five goals a game. The match-up was less a 1-seed versus an 8-seed, and more like The Keystone Kops versus The Banana Splits. Back-up goalie Tomas Vokoun stepped in and saved the Penguins from Marc-Andre Fleury, but the Islanders had no choice but to ride a gassed Evgeni Nabokov down with the ship.
I decided to commemorate the series with my take on a new hockey tradition, a eulogy in the style of the late Puck Daddy blog on Yahoo.com. The eulogy focuses more on the Islanders than the Penguins, but I did note that, “Penguins goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury played so poorly that security guards were scoring goals on him from the Nassau Coliseum concourse.”
What can be said about the Islanders’ venerable home arena that the Board of Health hasn’t said already? Yes, using asbestos in construction was standard practice for decades up to the mid-1970s, but surely no building has caused more health problems than Nassau Mausoleum. Between the asbestos, the falling ceiling, the peeling paint, the chronic clinical depression, the high blood pressure and the stale hot dogs, it’s a miracle anybody has ever left it alive, especially the players that somehow work there everyday.
That passage takes on a new life again as the Islanders will, improbably, be playing their home games at the renovated Nassau Coliseum during this year’s playoff series. It’s been cleaned up, given a fresh coat of paint (and an aluminum foil hat) and had some of its seats removed in favor of a much-needed second concourse. But it’s still just as old, spartan, cramped and loud as it ever was. We’ll see if goalies Matt Murray or Casey DeSmith can handle it better than Fleury could.
NBCSN commentator Pierre McGuire has become synonymous with the Penguins over the years because of his work as an assistant coach for them during their first Stanley Cup seasons and because of his barely withheld gushing over their every player (usually using either that player’s full legal name or a cute nickname we’re all pretty sure he’s just made up) every time they’re on national television.
Watching Pierre call a Penguins game is like sitting next to a smug, motor-mouthed uncle at Thanksgiving dinner who won’t shut up about a cousin you can’t stand. The fact that the cousin has been super successful just makes it even more irritating.
McGuire’s knowledge of the NHL (not to mention his friends in the media) help make him a frequent candidate for available general manager positions around the league. One of those open gigs was in Pittsburgh when the Penguins sacked Ray Shero in 2014. The job eventually went to Jim Rutherford, but that didn’t stop us from posting Pierre’s formal application, leaked straight from the Penguins HR department.
Something tells me the Penguins aren’t regretting letting this resume slip through the cracks...
Hey, remember when we heard that Sidney Crosby was reportedly arrested for a “driving related offense” in Ottawa in September of 2014? No? That’s because the Canadian government had the whole thing squashed and the mountie that made the bust is probably cleaning drill bits on an oil rig in Nunavut right now.
Remember Dog The Bounty Hunter? Hell yeah, you do. And when the story of the arrest (which ended up getting retracted because of Crosby’s “alibi”) came out, I sent Dog and fellow senior citizen tough guys Jesse Ventura and Steven Seagal after his fugitive ass.
“One minute, the guy is picked up by the mounties,” Ventura said. “The next minute he’s supposedly 2,000 miles away and the story is retracted. Something is not right. We will find out how deep this mess goes and just how much damage this clown has done across the U.S.A. and Canada.
”For all we know, Sidney Crosby was the pervert scumbag hacker nutjob that put all those stolen nudie pictures on the internet last week. Anything is possible with someone this unpredictable.”
I wouldn’t mess with an ex-pro wrestler, former governor and current conspiracy theorist who was in both The Running Man and Predator. Even if I was Sidney Crosby.
Hey, remember when the NHL suddenly came down with a widespread case of the mumps like it was a Little Orphan Annie strip from The Great Depression? The Penguins, including Crosby, were hit hard by the previously-forgotten disease in 2014 and it really took its toll on the entire organization. Even the mascot:
“We’re testing any players, Ice Crew members, security guards, Cub Scouts or other mascots Iceburgh may have come in contact with, and we’re on top of the situation,” Rutherford said. “We feel real bad about this.
”Our people aren’t 100 percent sure how a suit, make of wire and fabric, even gets the damn mumps, but who the hell knows what’s going on any more?”
Reading that over again for the first time in a while, some names immediately jump out to me. One was “Penguins team doctor Vance Damme” (get it), and another was “Mascots Association executive director Donald Furr.”
But one name wasn’t one of my lame puns. Then-Penguins goalie Thomas Greiss also came down with the mumps that year. He’s probably feeling much better now as a member of the Islanders, as illustrated by his finishing tied for fourth in the NHL in save percentage with a .927 (teammate Robin Lehner is second in the league with a .930).
While the Penguins got back to the business of winning championships, the Islanders were dealing with their own myriad of issues. It took three years for another Penguins-focused article to surface, but people seemed to get a kick out of it.
Although he’s spent the majority of this season in the AHL, Josh Ho-Sang is still a player fans are interested in. He can be electric on the ice and compelling off of it, such as in his choice to wear No. 66 in his first NHL season. And while Ho-Sang wore the number to honor Mario Lemieux, a few folks (i.e. the dumbest of all Penguins fans) took offense to some punk kid on another team stealing their hero’s digits.
So I took the debate to its most illogical extreme:
“Josh is a fine young man, and an exciting, talented player,” NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said in a statement announcing the tribute. “He’s the kind of athlete all young hockey players should want to emulate and we feel that by retiring his No. 66 jersey across our great league, we will be spotlighting his amazing story and inspiring future generations of NHL talent for years to come.
“I can’t think of a better reason to retire No. 66 forever than Josh Ho-Sang.”
Turns out the joke was on all of us. When Lou Lamoriello was named Islanders general manager in 2018, in came his many team rules including lower numbers for most players, particularly the younger ones. So Ho-Sang now wears No. 26, and we’re no longer able to tweak Penguins fans about who the “best” No. 66 in NHL history is.
I’m sure at the end of this playoff series, both Islanders and Penguins fans will have a whole new set of outrages to be sensitive about for the next few years. I just hope we can all keep our senses of humor about them.