Friday, December 15, 2017
Tampa Bay Lightning

The Penguins' three-peat quest comes to Tampa today

TAMPA — Life, Denis Potvin said the other day, was not very good for the members of the Islanders in the early 1980s if they lost two straight games.

"All of a sudden practice times were different. There were weigh-ins. Practice without pucks," Potvin said. "Whatever (coach Al Arbour) had control over, he would do to make sure you weren't comfortable if you lost two in a row."

The Islanders were in the midst of a run of four consecutive Stanley Cup championships from 1980-83 and five trips to the Cup final. The good teams would try to measure themselves against the Islanders, and the bad teams viewed a win against the defending champions as a highlight in a lost season.

Arbour, meanwhile, tried his best to not let complacency set in.

It worked for nearly half a decade as the Islanders successfully defended three titles and almost a fourth, losing in the '84 Cup final to the Oilers.

Those teams, captained by Hall of Fame defenseman Potvin, were the last to win at least three straight Cups. Since then, the Oilers (twice), Red Wings and Penguins have won two in a row.

The current group of Penguins, who face the Lightning tonight at Amalie Arena, is the latest to try for a three-peat. That hasn't been done successfully in more than three decades, Potvin, now the Panthers' TV analyst, noted last week with a measure of pride.

Chief among the reasons for that is the salary cap, instituted as a result of the 2004-05 lockout. It prevents teams from locking up all their top players long term. By comparison, the Islanders kept a core of 16 during their run of Cup wins.

If the gauntlet of an 82-game season plus four rounds of best-of-seven playoff series doesn't eventually catch up to a team, money will.

"You look at what Chicago's had to do (after Cup wins in 2010, '13 and '15), Pittsburgh's had to do based on salary caps," Lightning general manager Steve Yzerman said. "You have to change that roster. The Islanders were able to keep that group together virtually the same. I'm not sure you can do that today, so that's another added challenge."

Yzerman captained the Red Wings to back-to-back titles in 1997 and '98. The 1998-99 team finished third in the Western Conference and lost to the Avalanche in the playoffs' second round.

"It's hard to play at that very-extra-high level game in and game out," Yzerman said. "It's really demanding. I was fortunate to be on the team that won two in a row. The next year when you lose, it doesn't feel any better. You don't sit there and say, 'It's okay, we just won two in a row.' You feel let down. It was an opportunity missed."

For teams that successfully defend a title, chances are they have lost a key player or two, especially during this age of the salary cap. Injuries play a role. Factor in the mental and physical tolls, the shorter offseasons, the summers filled with parties and parades. The rest of the league also has a say.

"There's a lot of luck and timing involved in winning," Yzerman said. "It doesn't always go your way. It's hard to win one, let alone two."

Lightning forward Chris Kunitz was a key player on the Penguins' recent run of Cups: a win in 2009 and the first back-to-back wins by a team during the salary cap era. After signing with the Lightning in free agency, he began this season with the same goal he has had during the past two.

"Everybody starts with a blank page, for sure, but the ability you have to write your own story is something you dictate," he said. "Everybody is doing the same thing, because everybody is trying to do the same thing — win the Stanley Cup."

At the start of the year, he said, every team takes a moment to reflect on the previous season.

"Either you don't want to do that again or you want to repeat the process," Kunitz said. "No two years are going to be the same."

The Islanders' run was stopped by the Oilers, who beat them in the 1984 Cup final for their first title. The Oilers won again the next year, and they came within an own goal in Game 7 in the second round against the Flames in 1986 from winning five straight. The Oilers' second attempt at a three-peat was stopped in the first round by Wayne Gretzky and his new team, the Kings, in 1989.

The Penguins won in 1991 and 1992, then were tripped up in 1993 by an underdog Islanders team in the second round on a Game 7 overtime goal.

Arbour searched for any edge that could keep his Islanders motivated and winning.

Potvin remembered one training camp when each player was handed an envelope with a key to a hotel room. Potvin said he entered his and found it filled with smoke from burning incense and Maharishi Mahesh Yogi — famed guru to the Beatles, the Beach Boys and other celebrities — waiting to teach him Transcendental Meditation.

"It's a constant 'Don't sit down,' " Potvin said. "If you're tired, then use the edge of the seat, but don't sit down, because everybody's after you."

After the Penguins beat the Predators in June for their second straight title, coach Mike Sullivan said to reporters at the championship parade: "I wonder if we can repeat? If we can three-peat?"

The Penguins began the year with back-to-back losses, including a 10-1 embarrassment to the Blackhawks.

"It's a real slap in the face, but it could be a very good thing for them early in the season," Potvin said. "You're going to have to play as well and be as committed as you were the first two years, and that's what's hard to comprehend. For some reason, you think you've gained a little bit of stature by winning two in a row."

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