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Counting on the captain

Pens need Lemieux to summon the magic again to compete

Posted: Wednesday October 09, 2002 8:28 PM

PITTSBURGH (AP) -- Mario Lemieux has made one astounding comeback after another during a much-interrupted yet wildly successful career that's taken him to the Hall of Fame, the owner's box and back to the ice again.

The Pittsburgh Penguins can only hope he's got one more comeback left in him.

The man who has beaten debilitating back pain, cancer and a temporary retirement now must try to defeat one more opponent -- Father Time.

As the Penguins open their season Thursday night against the Toronto Maple Leafs, Lemieux will be five days past his 37th birthday, an age when injuries often take longer to heal, seasons start feeling longer and opponents seem bigger and stronger.

Lemieux has never worked harder or longer before a season, but there's never been as much work to do, either.

For the first time since he arrived at age 18 in 1984, the Penguins were much closer last season to being one of the NHL's worst teams than one of its best. They lacked chemistry, scoring, defense, commitment, talent and, most of all, Lemieux, who was limited to 24 games by a hip injury and felt good for only a handful of games.

That's why Lemieux is convinced that for the Penguins to shake off their dreadful 28-41-8-5 season, he must play a full schedule, or close to it. The problem: Lemieux has played as many as 70 games only twice since 1989.

"The key for me is to play 70 or 75 games," said Lemieux, who has missed the equivalent of four full seasons during his career to injuries or medical problems. "If I can do that, I can get a lot of points, and that only helps the team. I want to go out there and play the game and push myself to the limits."

The Penguins certainly couldn't be accused of doing that during an embarrassing 0-8-1-1 finish last season that ended with a 7-1 loss at Boston. General manager Craig Patrick was so angry, he screamed at them during a postseason meeting, then started training camp by delivering another stern speech.

Then, to further emphasize the point, he demoted three young players who were with the team all or most of last season: Kris Beech, Milan Kraft and Toby Petersen.

"Last year was very disappointing for all of us, and we're intent on not letting that happen again," Patrick said.

Just as startling as the Penguins' free fall only one year after they reached the Eastern Conference finals was their inability to score. With Lemieux's limited availability and with Jaromir Jagr traded, they scored only 198 goals -- only 17 more than during the labor strife-interrupted 48-game season in 1994-95.

As a result, the Penguins enter coach Rick Kehoe's first full season with a decidedly older, more experienced team. What they don't know is if older translates into better.

They signed formerly-retired Alexandre Daigle, the one-time super prospect whose play has never equaled his potential; Vladimir Vujtek, a longtime European player who has only seven goals in 105 NHL games; and reacquired defenseman Marc Bergevin and physical forward Steve McKenna.

Of those, only Daigle figures to be more than a complementary part. For the Penguins to improve offensively, they need Lemieux to stay healthy, Martin Straka to get back on the ice quickly, Daigle to be a contributor and not a floater and Alexei Kovalev to remain productive. Kovalev has 76 goals and 171 points over the last two seasons.

Straka, coming off a 95-point season in 2000-01, missed all but 13 games last season after twice breaking a leg. Just as he was ready to resume skating, he injured his back during a summertime weightlifting accident and will likely miss at least the first month of the season.

As usual, the Penguins' greatest weakness is on the blue line, where only a couple of names are recognizable even by the most studious of NHL fans. In the past, their offensive skills largely overcame that defensive deficiency, but their defensemen's lack of size, muscle and scoring ability became glaring last season.

Johan Hedberg, who attended offseason hypnosis sessions to help him maintain his concentration, and Jean-Sebastien Aubin are capable goalies who didn't get much help.

Still, for all the problems that would seem to exist, Lemieux is convinced the Penguins can return to the playoffs for the 12th time in 13 seasons.

"I think we're going to surprise a lot of people," he said.


 
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