By Greg Enright
On paper, it looked like a mismatch. The 15th place Pittsburgh Penguins would meet the 2nd place St. Louis Blues in the first round of the 1981 NHL playoffs. The Blues had been the surprise sensation of the regular season, riding the rock-solid goaltending of Mike Liut to the league’s upper echelon, while the Pens had stumbled and bumbled to a 30-37-13 record.
To everyone’s surprise, however, the best-of-five series turned into a classic clash between two teams full of heart and determination, unwilling to give their opponent an inch. When it was over, the battle easily took its place as one of the greatest playoff series in Penguins history.
Despite the teams’ huge difference in the regular season standings, there was hope for Pittsburgh fans. The Blues had looked decidedly mediocre down the stretch, going 4-5-3 over their last 12. Pens coach Eddie Johnston had swept the Blues the previous year as coach of the Chicago Black Hawks. The Penguins had nothing to lose and went to St. Louis feeling loose as the series opened April 9.
Game One followed the expected script with the Blues winning 4-2. But the plucky Penguins rebounded in game 2, riding a four-goal second period outburst to a 6-4 win. Johnston’s addition of rookie Mike Bullard to the lineup paid off, as the young gun’s two assists sparked a four-goal second period Penguin outburst. The crafty coaching move seemed to take the Blues by surprise.
“They didn’t key on me at all,” Bullard said. “They pretty much let me do what I wanted.”
Before a raucous Game Three Pittsburgh crowd that began cheering 45 minutes before the puck even dropped, Blues future Hall of Famer Bernie Federko spoiled the party by scoring the go-ahead goal with 4:06 left to give St. Louis a 5-4 win.
Things weren’t looking good early in Game 4 when the Blues jumped out to a 2-0 lead. But the Pens weren’t ready to start golfing yet. They fought back and pulled ahead on Randy Carlyle’s shorthanded blast past Liut halfway through the second period. Bullard continued his strong play by scoring the eventual game-winner 44 seconds into the third. The Pens won 6-3 and were headed back to St. Louis’s Checkerdome arena for a fifth and deciding game.
“We came out flat in the first period but we didn’t get our heads down. We just said, ‘Let’s get it together,’” Carlyle told the Pittsburgh Press in the post-game locker room.
Game 5 was as close as the entire series had been, with the Penguins twice going up by a goal but each time unable to maintain the lead. It took a Greg Malone goal with just over nine minutes to play in regulation to tie it at three and send it to overtime.
Throughout the series, Eddie Johnston had been doing his best to play with the mind of Liut by claiming he had seen a flaw in the goaltender’s game. While he wouldn’t divulge exactly what it was, EJ must have been onto something because Liut was hardly playing up to the form he had displayed all season long. Unfortunately for the Penguins, though, as overtime began it appeared Liut had worked out the problem. He turned back 12 Penguin shots, including one on a Mark Johnson breakaway, to keep the hard-charging Pens at bay and send the contest to a second OT period.
He kept up his brick wall like play throughout the fifth period, stopping five more shots. Just past the five-minute mark the Blues pushed the puck deep into Penguin territory. Randy Carlyle went to the corner to get it but Blues center Mike Zuke made a great play to flip it out to an unguarded Mike Crombeen stationed in front of the net. Crombeen one-timed it past Millen, the Checkerdome erupted and the Penguins’ season was over. The Blues’ right winger had been sick all day and had been used sparingly throughout the game, but his fresh legs earned him extra ice time as the game dragged on and gave him a chance to be the hero.
Millen, who had faced 48 shots, laid on the ice for a good 15 seconds while the Blues celebrated around Crombeen.
“I would have played all night, all week,” he said afterwards. “I wasn’t even thinking about being tired.”
“We spilled a lot of blood and guts out there,” said a disappointed Carlyle.
Both teams seemed to realize they’d just played a classic and weren’t afraid to praise their opponents.
“This game will stick out in my mind for a long, long time because of the heart everybody showed. I’m including their guys too,” said Malone.
“Those guys played great hockey,” the Blues’ Wayne Babych said, adding that Millen was “incredible.”
Back in his Civic Arena office a day later, Johnston – a member of the Bruins’ Stanley Cup Champion teams of the early 70s – claimed Game Five was “probably the best hockey game I’ve seen in the last 15 to 20 years.” When asked what the flaw he’d seen in Liut’s game was, Johnston revealed that the netminder had uncharacteristically played further back in his net until he broke the habit early in the third period of Game 5.
“I wish he hadn’t,” said Johnston, “but he did, and in the overtime you could see what a tremendous difference it made.”
Had they won, the Pens would have faced the Stanley Cup Champion New York Islanders in the Quarter-Finals. That matchup – and more heartbreak – would have to wait until the following year.
Here’s the video of the game winning goal.
Greg Enright is a writer, editor and diehard Pens fan since 1977. Follow him on Twitter @penguinshistory.