"That's classic Mario," says Young. "He'll never play it up and come out and say he wants it. But you know he wants it."
Lemieux scored in each of the Penguins' first 12 games. He had Harry (Punch) Broadbent in his sights. Broadbent, you'll surely recall, set the NHL record with a 16-game goal-scoring streak for the original Ottawa Senators in 1921-22. Lemieux embellished his bid for that mark with five outings in which he had two goals or more. He beat goalies good and bad; in one three-game stretch he faced the Montreal Canadiens' superb Patrick Roy twice, scoring two goals and adding three assists, and nearly turned the Buffalo Sabres' so-so Daren Puppa back into a larva by scoring with a slap shot.
Roy, a three-time winner of the Vezina Trophy, could only shake his head, a common affectation among goalies suffering from post-Mario stress disorder. "Usually, when you play a team, you want to focus on one line," Roy says. "Pittsburgh is the only team where you have to focus on one player. When he's coming toward you, all you see is him. Of course, after he makes a great pass, you have to worry about all the great players around him."
Nothing lasts forever, except possibly the record set by Broadbent. On Nov. 3, at Pittsburgh's Civic Arena, Lemieux's consecutive-game goal streak ended when he couldn't solve Mark Fitzpatrick of the New York Islanders, who stopped six of his shots. And even though the Penguins won the game 2-0, the atmosphere was somber in the Pittsburgh dressing room. "We really wanted him to get that record," said Lemieux's linemate Kevin Stevens. "He's done just about everything else in hockey. It would have been nice."
"When you get that close to a record that has been around for 70 years but you don't get it," said Lemieux, "you're naturally very disappointed."
In the second game of the season Lemieux had scored twice on Fitzpatrick. "He'll come down and throw three or four fakes at me, and often I'm not sure if he's going to go north, south, east or west," Fitzpatrick says. "The only thing I can do is try to stay with the puck. Somewhere between the fakes and dekes is where a goalie gets in trouble. You have to totally focus on the puck and not worry about what he's doing. If you can do that, the odds are best. But even then the odds are not in your favor."
The odds were not with the discordant St. Louis Blues on Nov. 5, when the Penguins routed them 8-4 behind Lemieux's goal and three assists. "He was a tower of confidence out there," said St. Louis goalie Guy Hebert. "It was a terrible sight to see. If you give him an inch, he'll put it in the net. I thought he was going to shoot glove-high, so I was guarding against that, and instead he put it right through the five-hole [between the pads]."
Last Saturday night in Toronto, Lemieux beat Felix Potvin with a slap shot from the slot three minutes into the game. He has been pulling up and shooting with greater frequency this year, which is both another way to keep the goalies guessing and another indication that his back is feeling better. As Young points out, in 1988, when Lemieux scored a career-high 199 points and before his back problems, he used the slap shot quite a bit.
That shot on Saturday night turned out to be the only one Lemieux would take against the Leafs, who trumped the Penguins 4-2. Potvin, a 21-year-old rookie from Lemieux's native Quebec, could hardly contain himself afterward, as he jammed a pinch of snuff between his cheek and gum. "He was my idol." Potvin said. "I always heard about him, growing up. but I tried my best not to think about him before this game. Then he scored on the first shot. I don't know if that was good or bad. I just know we won."
Still, at week's end the Penguins were 11-3-2, a far cry from a year ago, when they had to overcome a sluggish start to win their second consecutive Stanley Cup. Goalie Tom Barrasso has been in playoff form, his 10-0-2 start surpassing the 11-game team-record unbeaten streak set by Michel Plasse in 1976. Barrasso, whose streak was broken by the Chicago Blackhawks in a 7-2 loss on Sunday, also has a distinct advantage over his peers—he hasn't had to face Lemieux since 1988, when the Sabres traded him to Pittsburgh.