Not you again
NHL players excited about Lemieux's return, but goalies
NEW YORK -- Everyone in the NHL seems excited about Mario Lemieux's dramatic and unexpected comeback -- everyone, that is, except the goaltenders.
Lemieux officially announced Friday his return from a 3 1/2-year layoff in which he transitioned from player to owner and, now, to player-owner. Penguins general manager Craig Patrick said Lemieux still isn't in game shape, and the date of his return is indefinite.
It didn't matter. Across the league, teams reported increased ticket sales for the Penguins' remaining games. The Penguins were selling tickets at a rate of 1,000 per hour; or, about what they would normally sell in a day.
Lemieux's return also could boost the NHL's TV ratings, currently hovering at 0.5 -- one-half of one percent of all TV households -- for ESPN telecasts.
"He's only going to bring everything up. They're going to fill that building [Mellon Arena]," said Flyers forward Mark Recchi, a former Lemieux teammate.
Many NHL players predict Lemieux's impact won't be limited to the box office. Lemieux won consecutive NHL scoring titles in 1995-96 and 1996-97 before retiring at age 31, and Recchi doubts his skills atrophied despite the long layoff.
"He's so far above us, his skill level is so tremendous ... he can still do things that no one else can do," Recchi said. "There will be a little rust but what he does with his skills is beyond us, so I think he will be fine."
Rick Tocchet of the Flyers grew to appreciate Lemieux's skills while playing alongside him in Pittsburgh, and he also expects a swift and successful comeback.
"If there's an athlete that can take 3 1/2 years off, come back and be at the top of their game. He can do it," Tocchet said. "It wouldn't surprise me if he came back and led the NHL in scoring from that point on.
"The previous time I saw him, he was having dinner, having a steak and a big cigar. It didn't look like he was coming back. But, trust me, he can do it."
Another former Lemieux teammate, Petr Nedved of the New York Rangers, also expects to see Lemieux's name quickly climbing the list of NHL scoring leaders.
"He's going to pretty much be where he left off," Nedved told the Bergen Record. "That's how good he is. It's great for the league. It's great for Pittsburgh. And, obviously, they've got the other guy, what's his name? Jagr."
Jaromir Jagr has won three consecutive NHL scoring championships since Lemieux retired, but has slumped much of this season and currently isn't among the Top 10 scorers. Penguins teammate Alexei Kovalev expects that to change soon.
"He [Jagr] carried this team on his back for couple of years like Mario did and now, with Mario back, he is going to get his confidence back," Kovalev said. "It will a big relief for him to play with Mario again."
With Lemieux, Jagr and Kovalev in the same lineup, the Penguins will become a Stanley Cup favorite if Lemieux resembles the player he was before.
"It was great watching him play before and if he comes back, even at 50 percent, he's one of the most exciting players," Montreal Canadiens defenseman Eric Weinrich told the Canadian Press. "When you're on the ice with a guy like that, you hate to be on the other end of a spectacular play.
"You're always in awe of what he does. That's what it's like to play against guys like Mario and [Wayne] Gretzky and Paul Coffey. You have so much admiration for them that sometimes you forget to do your job. You want to watch them play."