Without emotion, Lemieux was just another right wing. But when riled he becomes an agitator. Sometimes Claude Lemieux can have almost as much an effect on a game in his nasty, hardscrabble way as Mario Lemieux (no relation) can have in his elegant way. "The first game I played here, he was going nuts," says 24-year-old Bill Guerin, who scored twice for New Jersey in Game 1. "I asked, 'What's this guy doing?' Someone on the bench said, 'That's just him.' If Pepe [ Lemieux's nickname] is quiet, if he's not causing trouble, if he's not in somebody's face, something's wrong. If he's yelling, screaming, slamming doors and threatening someone, then he's on his game."
But for all the jabs with his fist and his stick, it is the gibes that have made Lemieux notorious. Although he yaps less since the stoic Jacques Lemaire began coaching the Devils in 1993, he remains among hockey's preeminent trash-talkers, a player who can yo-mama the world in a barking baritone. During the first round Lemieux hounded Neely about his small role in the film Dumb and Dumber. "He kept asking Neely which one he was, Dumb or Dumber," Guerin says.
There is also a sweet side to Lemieux, a surprising openness from someone who has been singed by life. Above his stall at the Meadowlands is a framed picture of his sons, Christopher, 5, and Michael, 3, the most visible touch of family in the Devils' dressing room. Lemieux went through a messy divorce and custody battle that came to an end in the summer of '94, when his wife got custody of the boys.
"I've had 10 years' experience in the league, and when I look back at the things I've done and said, I don't have any regret," says Lemieux, 29, who came to the Devils from Montreal in a trade for Sylvain Turgeon in 1990. "I don't blame myself. I was 23, 24, an age when a lot of kids are just getting out of college. I was married with a child and had played four years in the NHL in probably the toughest city in pro sports. I honestly wouldn't do anything different. I just won't expect my children to behave the same way at 30 as they did at 20.
"When I was young, my goal was to be a complete player. Play on the power play, kill penalties, play center, left wing, right wing. I've done that. I've done a little of everything. I've been a goal scorer"—he scored 41 in a season once and 30 or more three times—"and I've been a checker. I've been fairly complete."
And now he is doing what he does best, jousting with Lindros, bellowing into Flyer ears, establishing himself as a playoff MVP candidate if New Jersey can put a sleeper hold on the Stanley Cup. Give the Devil his due.