Inside the NHL
No place was that ever tested on the ice more than on May 9, 1992, during the second round of that year’s Stanley Cup playoffs. Francis and his defending-champion Pittsburgh Penguins approached Game 4 down 2-1 against the favored New York Rangers and having lost star captain Mario Lemieux for the series to a broken wrist courtesy of an Adam Graves slash the previous game.
Lemieux was the Penguins’ version of LeBron James, Tom Brady and Mike Trout rolled into one on skates, a future Hall of Famer no one in the league could match. Pittsburgh had earlier lost 42-goal-scorer Joe Mullen to a playoff-ending knee injury and with the Presidents’ Trophy winning Rangers having finished 18 points ahead of the Penguins, sportswriters across North America were penning obituaries for Francis and company before another puck was dropped.
It fell to Francis and the other assistant captains to keep everybody calm.
“I think the term used when it was all said and done was, ‘We had more guts than we had brains,’’’ Francis said last Friday over coffee. “We didn’t realize that we shouldn’t win this.’’
Still, while the reigning champ Penguins might have had some “been there, done that’’ attitude, it would take more than words to overcome Lemieux’s loss. Especially once Rangers captain Mark Messier scored midway through the second period of Game 4 to silence the Pittsburgh crowd and put New York up by two goals as it looked to grab a series stranglehold.
It fell to Francis to keep the Pens alive, scoring 5.8 seconds before intermission to wake the fans — and his team — back up. Then, after Messier delivered another gut punch by scoring in the opening minute of the third to restore the two-goal advantage, Francis again revived his team with a long slap shot midway through the period.
“There was a five-minute major that we had to kill and we were able to kill that off,’’ Francis said. “And then, it was at the end of the power play and I more or less shoot the puck in from outside (the blue line) and somehow it fools (Mike) Richter and went in. And that really changed everything because all of a sudden, we had the belief.’’
The now-surging Penguins would score again to tie it just over a minute later. And then, in sudden-death overtime, none other than Francis completed his hat trick by redirecting a shot from close-in for a victory that turned the series around.
“I remember playing Game 3 at home and to this day I think it might have been the best game of my career and we lost the game,’’ Francis said of the night Lemieux suffered his injury. “And I remember driving home and calling my dad after the game, which a lot of times I would do.’’
His father, Ronald, agreed it was the best game he’d seen Francis play. But Francis, somewhat despondent over the loss, asked him what more could be done.
“And he said ‘Well, you have to be better.’ ’’
Francis was in Game 4 and the rest of his team followed, especially second-year linemate Jaromir Jagr, who produced dominant performances as the Penguins won Games 5 and 6 and eliminated the stunned Rangers.
“He just started to take over,’’ Francis said of his young linemate, who would later join him in the Hall of Fame as the league’s second all-time points-getter. “For me, that was sort of his coming-out party.’’
Lemieux, broken wrist and all, returned for the third round of those 1992 playoffs as the Penguins swept Boston in the conference final. Then, they swept Chicago in the Final for their second straight Stanley Cup, with Francis scoring the title-clincher.
The Blackhawks had led 4-1 in Game 1, but the Penguins fought back to tie it. Then, with seconds to play, Francis won a faceoff cleanly and Lemieux slammed home the rebound off the ensuing point shot for the victory as the Penguins went on to finish the postseason with 11 consecutive victories. Lemieux won the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP, but seasoned Pens fans know he’d never have had the opportunity without Francis delivering in his second-round absence.
Francis wasn’t always the star during 22 seasons with Hartford, Pittsburgh and Carolina, but continuously elevated his clubs. As a Whalers captain from right before his 22nd birthday, he might have won a Cup with that upstart team in 1986 had eventual champ Montreal not beaten them on a Claude Lemieux Game 7 overtime winner in the second round. Then, after the two titles with Pittsburgh, Francis captained a young Carolina team also playing above expectations to an epic second-round comeback win — over Montreal this time — and later into the 2002 Final before succumbing to Detroit.
Some who’ve worked for the GM version of Francis say he’s no different. Former NHL defenseman Bert Marshall, a Poulsbo resident who retired this month from his longtime scouting job with the Hurricanes, said Francis had meticulously researched the organization’s internal workings and knew every employee’s role before his promotion to GM in 2014.
And once there, Marshall said Francis made everybody feel like a key member of the organization no matter their job title.
“He knew what you were doing and then he demanded production from you,’’ Marshall said. “But not in a negative way. He motivated you to want to do well.’’
Marshall’s biggest regret was the scouting side of the organization — himself included — letting Francis down by not finding a goalie to get the Hurricanes into the playoffs. “We tried and tried, believe me,’’ he said. “But it’s tough.’’
Marshall, who played for the New York Islanders throughout the 1970s as they built toward a Stanley Cup dynasty in the 1980s, said Francis was “a leadership guy who was also his team’s best player’’ most of the time.
“Anytime you get that, you’re going to go somewhere,’’ Marshall said. “And he’s the same as a GM. That’s what Seattle fans have got here. They’re very lucky.’’
Francis said one of the biggest compliments he’d heard his father paid came at his 2013 funeral. A former employee told Francis his father had been his boss for 20 years but had never said “this guy works for me’’ — only that they worked together.
And Francis has carried that with him.
“If you do that, people around you know they have a say,’’ Francis said.
And hopefully, they get a little better in the process.