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This Week In Penguins History: February 25, 2004

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After an 18-game losing streak, any win is cause for celebration.

As a sports fan, it's important to maintain perspective. As a Yankees fan, you're weaned to expect to win championships and demolish records. As a Pirates fan, a sniff at .500 around September would be ecstasy.

For fans of the 2003-04 Pittsburgh Penguins, a single win was more than enough.

Simply put, the Penguins were a very, very bad team. The good years were long gone and the last vestiges of a successful decade had been sold off in a desperate attempt to balance the books. A tiny budget became tinier and hopes for the Penguins stretched thinner and thinner.

A bright spot at the start of the season led to a longstanding squabble between management and fans as Marc-Andre Fleury, drafted mere months before, wowed fans with a 46-save performance during a season-opening loss to the Los Angeles Kings. Fleury, however, was sent back to Cape Brenton of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League shortly after, to save money and protect his rookie eligibility, and what ensued over the remainder of the season was a five-goalie carousel.

Brief moments of inspiration (including Rico Fata's three-point performance in a surprise win against the Detroit Red Wings and the emergence of rookie defenseman Brooks Orpik as a force of nature in open ice) weren't enough to distract from the season's grim realities. 

Pseudo-enforcer Kelly Buchberger's pounding at the hands of Darren McCarty early in the season worked as a microcosm of the Penguins' woes. Try as they might, and they definitely did try, the Penguins just weren't good enough.

A hard-fought win against the Philadelphia Flyers on January 12th, 2004 improved Pittsburgh's record to 11-25-5-3 (with ties and overtime losses being the final two categories) and provided a moment of respite before what followed: Eighteen consecutive losses.

22% of the season passed without a win. Over the course of the streak, the Pens were outscored 83-40, for an average of 4.6 goals against to 2.2 goals for per game. Silly, silly numbers.

It looked as though the Penguins would go through the entire month of February without a win until an encounter with the Phoenix Coyotes on the 25th of the month.

Something quickly appeared to be amiss when Josef Melichar scored a fluke goal (one of seven in his NHL career) early in the first period, giving the Penguins a lead.

Now, understand, Phoenix was firmly in the bottom echelon of the NHL all season and wound up in the Pacific Division cellar, 36 points behind the San Jose Sharks. But the Penguins were so bad that any lead, whether it was a tenuous early lead or an inevitably doomed one late in a game, was a shock, regardless of the opposition.

Sure enough, the lead was surrendered three minutes later as Paul Mara and future ex-Penguin Jeff Taffe fed ex-Penguin Jan Hrdina to square things up. Mike Sillinger's deflection put Phoenix in front 2-1, a lead they would carry into the intermission.

Early in the second period, Cale Hulse scored a relatively soft goal, even by Andy Chiodo's standards, to put the Coyotes up 3-1, reflecting Phoenix's increasingly aggressive and daring attack. They smelled blood in the water and were circling for the kill.

Again, however, the Coyotes, who were playing for the first time under interim coach Rick Browness, were not a very good team. And though the Penguins were wretched, they had some young, talented players who were yet to break out in their careers. Two of those players were Ryan Malone and Alexsey Morozov.

Malone would strike first, taking advantage of Phoenix's aggression with a score on a 2-on-1 odd man rush. The Penguins had a shot.

Phoenix kept attacking, led by talisman Shane Doan's ten shots (and, amazingly, zero points). As the period neared its conclusion, Morozov struck with 26 seconds left, once again on a 2-on-1. Despite being out-shot 27-14 through two periods and being down 3-1 at one point, the Penguins went into the second intermission tied.

Having played on their heels for the majority of the game, the Pens remained defensive and looked to capitalize on the Coyotes' mistakes throughout the third. Phoenix, realizing its mistakes, tightened up as well. What ensued was a sloppy, unattractive period with ten total shots and few scoring chances. 

The Penguins had survived regulation. They had five minutes to end the winless streak and, maybe, beyond all hopes, nick a win.

They had come close once before, 13 games into the streak. Tied 2-2 in St. Louis in a game dominated by scuffles and penalties, the Pens were undone by an Eric Boguniecki game winner. This was the only point the Penguins gained out of 36 possible in their stretch. As hard as they tried, the Penguins just couldn't buy a win under any circumstances.

But 11 days later, less than two minutes into overtime:

 

Victory.

11-42-5-4 was suddenly 12-42-5-4. Amazing. Absolutely amazing.

I can remember that night very clearly. As it was in Arizona, the opening faceoff wasn't until the ten o'clock hour and the overtime period stretched past midnight.

The teams were lining up for the draw in the Coyotes end of the rink as the popular pairing of Dick Tarnstrom and Ric Jackman hovered around the points. Few worried about their defensive shortcomings at that point, as the two worked like magic on the power play - Tarnstrom from skill, Jackman more from reckless abandon.

The arena's spotlights flickered from above just briefly over the faceoff circle, ignored at the time but now, in retrospect, an omen.

Mike Eastwood won the faceoff straight back to Tarnstrom, who slid over to just above the circle and fired a wrist shot at Brian Boucher's net. Jackman, inexplicably, had cut to the net. And... wait, what? Deflection? Jackman! Goal!

The Pens rushed the ice and mobbed one-another. Ecstasy. I jumped on top of the coffee table with no idea of what to do other than triumphantly smack the ceiling for lack of a better option. Did the Penguins win the cup? No... they just won a game. 

Sometimes, that's more than enough.

Photographs by dizfunk used in background montage under Creative Commons. Thank you.