Silently, Serenely, Mario Lemieux comes to kill you.
He arrives as if from nowhere, a towering apparition, looming 6'7" above the ice in his three-inch-high skates. He shoots with deadly accuracy and passes with precision. His reach is simply superhuman, and he has an uncanny knack for deception. He'll hold his fire till the very last moment and then whip the puck toward the net from the oddest of angles.
Goalies know how dangerous this assassin can be. For the past eight-plus NHL seasons they've seen Lemieux, in person or on TV, develop his skills. They've watched him get off to a stunning start for the Pittsburgh Penguins this year, scoring 21 goals and assisting on 24 others in his first 16 games, a 110-goal, 236-point pace that would eradicate two of Wayne Gretzky's most significant records. And there doesn't seem to be anything anyone can do to stop him.
"You never have any idea what to expect," says Dominic Roussel of the Philadelphia Flyers, who gave up a goal to Lemieux in the season opener. "His face is so calm. He shows no sign of stress or anything. A lot of goaltenders get nervous when he's coming at them with that face. It's as if he's saying, No problem. Relax. I'm just going to beat you now. It's not going to hurt a bit.
"That's what shakes a lot of goaltenders. If he knows he's going to beat you for sure, it's easy to decide he's right."
On breakaways he usually is. "Most of the time when you see him coming, you might as well bend over and kiss your ass goodbye," says Tampa Bay Lightning goalie Wendell Young with a laugh. A former Penguin who went south in the expansion draft, Young was victimized twice by his old friend in a 5-4 Pittsburgh defeat of Tampa Bay on Nov. 1.
"Mario is the only guy in the league who, when he has a breakaway—even when there's a guy chasing him—you pretty much know you're going to have to make a great save," says Scan Burke of the Hartford Whalers. "He kind of attacks you. This big, menacing figure is in front of you before you know it, and you have a split second to make the play. Last time, I tried coming out and poke-checking him. I missed. He didn't."
Says the Detroit Red Wings' Tim Cheveldae, still smarting from the three goals Lemieux scored against him in a 9-6 Penguin victory on Oct. 22, "They ought to add another 6 to his uniform. Then he can wear number 666, like the Antichrist. That's what he is. He's the Antichrist."
Lemieux's deadpan expression dissolves into a beatific smile when he's told of all the kvetching. "I have no sympathy for goalies," he says. "No sympathy at all. My job is to go out there and score goals, and their job is to try and stop me."
It's a mild display of bravado, but it's the closest the 27-year-old Lemieux comes to acknowledging the obvious: He is the Great One now. If he can avoid a recurrence of the back trouble that limited him to 64 games last year, the single-season scoring records Gretzky established for goals (92 in 1981-82) and points (215 in '85-86) could be history. "The media make a big thing out of that, not me," says Lemieux. "Maybe I have a shot at it."