Originally created 01/26/01

Lemieux: The best is yet to come



PITTSBURGH -- Mario Lemieux's comeback has been so successful, he can even say this to Jay Leno: not "Tonight."

Leno wanted Lemieux to appear with him Feb. 2, two days before the NHL All-Star game in Denver. Lemieux vetoed the trip to Los Angeles so his 4-four-year son, Austin, wouldn't be subjected to wearying travel.

Leno and the NHL pushed for him to make the appearance but, as they found out, what Mario Lemieux wants, Mario Lemieux usually gets.

Was that ever in doubt?

Lemieux wanted to retire at 31, when many careers are only peaking, and he did. He wanted to buy his team - something no other player had ever done - and he did. He wanted to come back and play at a high level again 3« years after retiring and, so far, he has.

That is perhaps the only surprise in a remarkably successful comeback that reaches its one-month milestone Saturday, when his Pittsburgh Penguins play Atlanta. Namely, that Lemieux has made what would be nearly impossible for the average player - a second playing career - look so easy.

In 13 games since ending his 44-month retirement, Lemieux has 14 goals and 12 assists, the same two-points-a-game pace he maintained during his first 12 NHL seasons. He has three multiple-goal games, including his 40th career hat trick in a 3-1 win over Montreal Wednesday.

"That's why he's one of the greatest players to ever play the game," Canadiens defenseman Karl Dykhuis said. "Everything he does is head and shoulders above everybody else."

Lemieux hasn't fully regained his game legs or his conditioning - "I'm still not there yet," he said - but there is nothing wrong with his hands or his head.

Lemieux still makes shots other players simply can't; two of his three goals against Montreal came from near-impossible angles. And, as he readjusts to playing again after years if sitting in a private box, he is tinkering with nearly every facet of the Penguins' game.

When Lemieux returned, he played left wing rather than his natural center position on a line with Jan Hrdina and right wing Jaromir Jagr. They scored plenty of goals but, as opponents quickly adjusted from being star-struck at Lemieux's return to striking him at every opportunity, Lemieux knew changes were necessary.

After the Islanders and Bruins got away with being especially physical with Lemieux, general manager Craig Patrick quickly made four trades to add some punch to the lineup. Not necessarily scoring punch, either - he picked up 6-foot-8 forward Steve McKenna, brawler Krzysztof Oliwa and Lemieux's former linemate, the physical Kevin Stevens.

The message the Penguins sent didn't need translation: Mess with Mario, and your stars will get messed with, too.

Lemieux also quickly realized the Penguins can't play the wide-open style he prefers, not in a league where the neutral zone trap still thrives and a shootout is a 3-2 game.

So, rather than waiting for the playoffs to tighten down defensively, the Penguins started doing it this week. They played what suspiciously looked like a trap in a 4-0 victory Sunday in Chicago, with one forward forechecking while the other two dropped back into the neutral zone. Their patience carried over to the Montreal game.

"We know we can score a lot of goals and we have a lot more talent. I think it's to our advantage to be patient and wait for our chances, like the other teams are doing," Lemieux said. "It's pretty tough to go out on the ice when you're the only one taking chances."

Of course, Lemieux took a big chance by returning after so long a layoff. If his comeback wasn't successful, he risked tarnishing his image as one of the game's great players and, perhaps, its most skilled scorer ever.

As it turns out, Lemieux didn't take much of a gamble at all.

"I thought I would be a little bit better than this conditioning-wise but, overall, I have to be happy with my start," he said. "I'm certainly not where I want to be, I'm probably 75-80 percent of where I should be, but I guess I'm going to have to be more patient and hopefully get better and better."

Better than this? Is it possible?

"He's got the confidence, you can tell that," Jagr said. "And when he's got that confidence, Mario scores goals."