Originally created 12/29/00

Penguins, NHL savor Mario moment



PITTSBURGH -- Mario Lemieux could have taken the day off Thursday - he's still the Pittsburgh Penguins' owner, you know - after yet another astonishing comeback in a career filled with the improbable, the magical, the unimaginable.

Yet there he was at a suburban ice rink, barely 12 hours after returning to the NHL on a memorable night in which the high drama he created was exceeded only by his high performance, sweating and skating like any normal player.

Which, he proved once again, he never was and never will be.

If anyone doubted Lemieux's words of three weeks ago, when he ended 3« years of retirement by predicting he would again be hockey's best player, they probably do not now.

A player simply does not quit playing at age 31, go on to other pursuits, then return at age 35 to score a goal and set up two others in his first game in 44 months. To alter the skill level at which his sport is played. To be great on a night when even good was acceptable.

"It was a great night for everybody," Lemieux said Thursday, pulling off his skates in a locker that was never assigned to another player during his long layoff. "It was exciting to be back on the ice and play the game again.

"I was a little bit surprised the way I played, the way I handled the puck and made pretty good decisions on the ice. I was pretty happy with my first game back."

Still, even those who know him best couldn't believe what they were seeing as Lemieux led the Penguins to a 5-0 victory over the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Tears streamed down the face of Penguins general manager Craig Patrick, as if the sight of Lemieux wearing his No. 66 again was too good to be true. Lemieux's wife, Nathalie, sat enthralled, yelling and celebrating when her husband started playing again like ... well, like Mario Lemieux.

Even his own teammates couldn't believe Lemieux could play at such a high skill level, with so much hand speed and so much power in his skating, after a layoff as long as many players' careers.

"He could have had seven or eight points, easy," forward Martin Straka said.

Defenseman Darius Kasparaitis said the Maple Leafs also seemed overwhelmed by what they were watching. During a third-period faceoff, the Leafs' Danny Markov leaned over and said, "You've got to stop this game. It's getting ugly."

"He was so nervous to play against Mario," Kasparaitis said. "I remember I felt the same way when the Penguins started playing Lemieux and Jagr and Ron Francis together. We got beat 8-0, and I had no idea what was going on."

Maybe that's why the Penguins, who were slumping badly a week ago, practiced Thursday with the jump and the enthusiasm of a high school team. They do know what's going on now that Lemieux is back, and they can't wait to see more of it, starting with Saturday's home game against Ottawa.

Jaromir Jagr, stuck in the longest slump of his career earlier this season, certainly knows. With Lemieux again skating alongside him, he saw more open ice, had more scoring chances, had less contact than he has in months.

And he loved it.

"I had so much free time to skate," said Jagr, who had two goals during a four-point night. "Before, I didn't have any. But they have to worry about him now. I had so much time to do my thing."

That was the whole idea behind Lemieux's surprising return: to help get Jagr back on his game and to elevate the Penguins, who entered Wednesday's contest only one game above .500, into a Stanley Cup contender.

"If we want to be one of the best teams in the league, we need to start playing like a team that wants to achieve something," Lemieux said. "We need to get that feeling in the room and on the ice, and I think we can achieve that."

So does Kasparaitis.

"I never believed until last night that one guy could be that important, but Mario proved it," he said. "Our franchise looked unbelievable. I was amazed by his performance. He made it look easy."

Any one of Lemieux's comebacks - from cancer, from a year's layoff due to health problems, from a back operation that immobilized him for weeks - would be remarkable by itself. Add them together, and it is doubtful if there ever will be another athlete in the foreseeable future who has overcome so much to perform at so high a level after so many career interruptions.

What could Lemieux have accomplished had he stayed healthy? Consider this: Lemieux has played in barely half as many games as Wayne Gretzky, yet has 614 goals to Gretzky's 894. Had Lemieux played as many games as Gretzky and maintained his NHL-record pace of 2.005 points per game, he would have nearly 3,000 points.

"I missed three games once with an injury, and when I came back felt like I was out to lunch," Kasparaitis said. "He was out for more than three years and ... I just have no words for that. You just sit here and enjoy every moment of it."