Although his defense has been criticized ever since he was introduced to Pittsburgh in 1984 as the 18-year-old savior of the Penguins, Lemieux has learned that you don't get to be the top player in the game by merely scoring 85 goals (he did that in 1988-89, his last injury-free season). Last week Pittsburgh coach Scotty Bowman praised Lemieux for working hard in his own end against Washington, and on Sunday night Lemieux even took one for the team, throwing his body in front of a shot by New York's James Patrick during a scramble in front of the net. "That was a first," said Lemieux, smiling somewhat sheepishly.
Lemieux has loosened up a bit. He even permits himself a smile on the bench now and then. The pressure of being a franchise player doesn't seem to affect him as much as it did earlier in his career. Comparisons with the still-great Wayne Gretzky, who led the Edmonton Oilers to four Stanley Cups between 1984 and '88, have become less demeaning of Lemieux now that he has won a championship. He passed Gretzky to win NHL scoring titles in 1987-88 and '88-89, missed too many games because of the injured back and disk surgery to challenge for the scoring crown the next two seasons, and then led the league in scoring again this season, with 131 points in 64 games. The reason Lemieux gave for picking uniform number 66—it's Gretzky's 99 upside down—is rarely brought up anymore.
If Pittsburgh can get by the Rangers, Lemieux will have a good shot at hosting another Stanley Cup victory party for his teammates. At last year's fete the Cup wound up at the bottom of the swimming pool in Lemieux's backyard in Mount Lebanon, Pa. "It had a good time," says Penguin wing Phil Bourque.
A couple of months ago a giddy ending to this longest of seasons in Pittsburgh seemed almost inconceivable. The nightmare began late last summer, when beloved coach Bob Johnson, who had steered the Penguins to the Cup in his only season with them, was found to have cancer. Bowman was named coach before this season began when it became apparent that one of Johnson's brain tumors was inoperable. After Johnson died on Nov. 26, grieving players chafed at working for the demanding Bowman.
By March the Penguins were battling the lowly New York Islanders for the Patrick Division's fourth and final playoff spot. Pittsburgh general manager Craig Patrick held a closed-door meeting with the players. It must have worked, because the Penguins played well down the stretch, going 10-3-1 in their last 14 games, to finish in third place.
Before the regular season drew to a close, there would be a final indignity—the 10-day players' strike. To cheer themselves up during the walkout, Lemieux and goaltender Tom Barrasso headed for Florida to play some golf. "He's good," says Barrasso. "If he could work on his game year-round, he would be a serious player. The guy's got a one handicap."
Barrasso, who's got a four, is planning to take a trip with Lemieux this summer to Scotland, where they'll play some of that country's renowned courses. Their friendly game is quite competitive. "He always plays to win," says Barrasso.
Of course he does. That's the Mario scenario.