This is what makes Claude Lemieux great: His biological alarm clock rings each spring, and he goes crazy during the playoffs, scoring goals in bunches for his team, currently the New Jersey Devils, and harassing the best forward on the other team—at the moment, Eric Lindros of the Philadelphia Flyers—with a verve that would get him arrested if he were a civilian.
This is what makes Claude Lemieux grate: He yaps, he jabs, he occasionally crashes to the ice as if he had been pole-axed, as he did after the neat skate-by appendectomy Lindros tried to perform on him with a stick blade last Saturday in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals in Philadelphia. Lemieux and the Devils, however, won the game 4-1 and seized the home ice advantage in the series.
The fact is this: What makes the 6'1", 215-pound Lemieux grate is what makes him great.
Lindros denied he tried to spear Lemieux, but if, for argument's sake, he had tried to literally get under Lemieux's skin, maybe it was because Lemieux has made a career of getting under everyone else's. Think about chalk screeching on a blackboard. Think about someone who clips his nails in public. Think about a combination of Dick Vitale and Andy Rooney. Now think about Lemieux, who is as annoying as an Infomercial.
Of course his team can get pretty tedious itself. The Devils get an early lead and then squeeze the life out of a game. They opened the series with that victory over the Flyers by holding Lindros and his Legion of Doom line to five shots while not permitting a single Philadelphia odd-man rush at goalie Martin Brodeur. "Our mind-set right now is hard checking and being aggressive on the puck," says New Jersey defenseman Bruce Driver, whose team took a 2-0 series lead Monday night with a 5-2 win. The Devils are strong, disciplined and hypnotic, and should they win the Stanley Cup, the NHL might be at the yawn of a new era.
Lemieux, who had two assists in Game 2, had just one shot on goal and no points in Game 1, but he played a typical pot-stirring match. He held Philly defenseman Petr Svoboda's stick long enough to allow Randy McKay to swoop in and score the third New Jersey goal. He delivered angry hits on defensemen Eric Desjardins and Kevin Haller on the shift after the Lindros spear, and he and Lindros were asked to sit down for two minutes in the third period when they drew matching unsportsmanlike-conduct penalties.
"On the ice," Devil enforcer Mike Peluso says with admiration, "Claude's a consistent pain in the ass."
If the NHL elected an All-Clutch playoff squad, Lemieux would also be first-team. Since his rookie postseason, in 1986, when he scored 10 goals in 20 games for the Montreal Canadiens, including two in overtime, Lemieux has been Mr. May as much as Mr. Mayhem. During the 1995 regular season he had six goals in 45 games, but through Monday he had eight in 12 playoff games. Even more important to the systematic Devils, Lemieux's nagging attention neutralized Boston Bruin forward Cam Neely in the first round—Neely scored just two goals—and his dogged work against the Pittsburgh Penguins in the conference semifinals helped limit the fabulous Jaromir Jagr to three. A hockey truism says you can't just turn it on in the postseason. Yet Lemieux, whose 47 goals place him among the top 40 career playoff scorers, has flicked the switch after his least productive season and is now running amok.
"What's amazing is he really is a little-better skater, a little-better shooter, a little-better stickhandler than he is during the regular season," says Devil defenseman Ken Daneyko. "Against Pittsburgh he scored two of the prettiest goals you'll ever see on moves that made him look more like Jagr than Jagr. I didn't even know he had those moves."
"Growing up, playing big tournaments in midget and junior, I seemed to play better in those situations," Lemieux says. "When I first started in Montreal and we won the Cup, the following season the emotions were so low compared to the playoffs. I was surprised."