The best-of-five element of the NHL’s 24-team, return-to-play plan, while unusual, is neither unacceptable or unprecedented.
In Penguins’ history, a couple of best-of-five series remain among the franchise’s most memorable postseason experiences.
Memorable for all the wrong reasons, but nonetheless unforgettable.
Even after five Stanley Cups.
The first occurred in the spring of 1981 in St. Louis.
The Blues were the No. 2 seed following a 45-18-17 regular season (their 107 points trailed only the Islanders’ 110).
The Pens had squeaked into the postseason at 30-37-13 (their 73 points surpassed only the Maple Leafs’ 71 among playoff teams).
But it took five games to decide.
And a couple of overtimes.
The Pens rallied from one-game-to-none and two-games-to-one series deficits.
They rallied from a 3-2, third-period hole in Game 5.
They were an overtime goal away from what at the time would have arguably been the most significant achievement in franchise history.
Instead, the Blues’ Mike Crombeen found the net at 5:16 of the second OT.
But as agonizing as all of that was, the Pens were just getting warmed up.
The following season they drew the two-time Stanley Cup champions, the New York Islanders, in round one.
The Islanders had won 23 more games (54-31) and had amassed 43 more points (118-75) thanthe Penguins in the regular season.
This was Mike Bossy, Bryan Trottier and Denis Potvin vs. Rick Kehoe, Pat Boutette and Randy Carlyle.
This wasn’t a mismatch, it was batting practice.
And it was so bad initially that Pens owner Edward DeBartolo offered refunds to anyone holding a ticket to Game 3 at the Igloo in the wake of the Pens losing Games 1 and 2 by a combined 15-3 count on Long Island (8-1 and 7-2).
But the Pens somehow won Game 3 in OT (Kehoe from a bad angle for a 2-1, stayin’-alive triumph) and Game 4 relatively comfortably (5-2).
And they found themselves leading Game 5, 3-1, with less than six minutes remaining in regulation.
Do you still believe in miracles?
Not this time.
Mike McEwen (who?) scored on the power play at 14:33 of the third period and then John Tonelli tied it at 17:39 after the puck had inexplicably bounced over Carlyle’s stick as Carlyle was attempting to retrieve what had initially appeared to be a harmless dump-in. Tonelli pounced and stunned goaltender Michel Dion seemingly never had a chance.
Carlyle, the Norris Trophy winner the previous season, had to be the sickest man in America right about then.
Or in Canada, for that matter.
After such an unimaginable collapse late in regulation, Tonelli again at 6:19 of the extra session felt predestined.
Given the particulars, the kick to the nuts was every bit as paralyzing as allowing a three-games-to-none lead to slip away against the Islanders had been in 1975 for the Penguins.
It might have been worse.
The wrong end of sudden death is at least as devastating.
But the series didn’t lack drama, just as the five games against St. Louis the previous season hadn’t.
Even three games is enough to inspire if the right circumstances coincide.
George Ferguson’s series-winning goal in overtime of Game 3 in 1979 in Buffalo was just such a time.
As for this season, the unpredictable nature of the pandemic-delayed best-of-fives _ assuming the NHL eventually gets there _ will make what takes place even more compelling, potentially.
When you’re fast-forwarding from “pause” to a winner-take-all shot at redemption, a seventh game isn’t a prerequisite.
Courtesy of Getty Images.