"One of the many things Mario does well is conserve energy," says former NHL goaltender John Davidson, a thoughtful observer of the NHL who served as color commentator for Sports-Channel America during the finals. "He conserves fuel. People think he's lazy, but that's not true. He's just smart."
Lemieux is a big man, 6'4" and rangy, and he skates with a casual grace that at times has been mistaken for a lack of effort. Yes, he has missed 91 games over the past three regular seasons, but he has a good excuse: a back injury that required surgery in 1990 and continues to hamper his movement. On his best days his back is 80% functional and 20% painful.
"I don't think people realize what Mario goes through," Davidson says. "So maybe he only plays 50 or 60 games during the regular season. I'd rather see him do that than force himself to play with a bad back. This way, he's ready for the playoffs, and this way maybe we'll get to watch him play for 10 more years. People should accept Mario for what he is and applaud his greatness."
Lemieux, 26, played only 64 regular-season games this year. He still won his third scoring title in five seasons, with 44 goals and 131 points. Less than two weeks after Graves hacked him, Lemieux was back playing more than 30 minutes a game. He had to win a Cup before anyone would acknowledge that he had surpassed Wayne Gretzky, in his prime a member of four championship teams in Edmonton, as the game's best player. Now Lemieux has won two. And while Gretzky plays out his career with the mediocre Los Angeles Kings, Lemieux could win a few more.
Unlike Gretzky, Lemieux will have the opportunity to school his own successor. He has seen the future of hockey, and its first name, Jaromir, is an anagram for Mario Jr. Jagr, a 20-year-old from Czechoslovakia who joined the Penguins in 1990, scored 32 goals this season, but he didn't truly open up his bag of tricks until Lemieux was injured in the second game of the Patrick Division finals against the Rangers. Since then, he has scored fabulous goal after fabulous goal. Just watching him carry the puck can be a thrill. In Game 1 of the finals he faked and juked his way past three Blackhawks before calmly delivering a backhand shot that tied the score 4-4 late in the third period. "Inexcusable," fumed Keenan. "The greatest goal I've ever seen," gushed Lemieux. Cornered by a pack of news-hounds as he munched on pizza in the locker room after the game, Jagr responded to a shouted question with a wide, toothy grin. "I don't know enough English to describe that goal," he said.
Language barrier notwithstanding, Jagr is as gregarious as Lemieux is laconic. Already he's at least as popular as Lemieux is in Pittsburgh. When Jagr let slip earlier in the season that he loved Kit Kat candy bars, there was a run on convenience stores in western Pennsylvania. Hundreds of fans bought the bars, stuffed them into envelopes and mailed them to Jagr. "I eat them all," he said. Hey, the teeth are going to go one way or another, right? Capitalizing on his popularity, a local radio station features Jaromir's Weather, in which Jagr's previously taped, heavily accented voice reads the daily forecast. Try to imagine Bela Lugosi speaking underwater.
Jaromir's Weather wasn't the only thing that was hot as May became June and this longest of NHL seasons drew to a close. The Penguins finished with a flourish, winning 11 games in a row to tie the league record for consecutive playoff victories in a single season. The record had been established less than two weeks earlier by the Blackhawks, whose streak was halted by Pittsburgh in the first game of the finals.
That game and the ones that followed proved a couple of things the Penguins stressed throughout the postseason: They never quit, and they never, ever panic. Perseverance and poise are among the many legacies left by their former coach Bob Johnson, who died of cancer last November. "We stay on an even keel and do what it takes to win," says Stevens.
Like an increasing number of teams in the NHL, the Penguins treat the regular season as a tuneup for the playoffs. Interim coach Scotty Bowman was frustrated by his players' refusal to discipline their game, and they were dissatisfied with his distant, no-nonsense approach. But after finishing third behind the Rangers in the Patrick Division race, Pittsburgh began playing for pride and demonstrated that its Cup victory over the sub-.500 Minnesota North Stars last year was not a freak.
In Game 1, they outscored the Hawks in that debilitating come-from-behind Jagr-and-Lemieux fest. After that, they mimicked Chicago's defensive, dump-and-chase style to perfection and drove Keenan to distraction in the process. He ripped and then benched his best players (one of whom, center Jeremy Roenick, later revealed that he had a badly bruised thumb). He played his goons—Stu (The Grim Reaper) Grimson, Mike (408 Penalty Minutes) Peluso—along with hard-hitting Jocelyn (No Relation) Lemieux on the same line against Jagr and Lemieux in Game 2. Lemieux, who can no longer be shadowed by pesky defenders because the Penguins now have so many other threats, quickly scored an insurance goal.