"You can see he's getting more comfortable, doing things now he wasn't a few weeks ago," Penguins defenseman Darius Kasparaitis says. "He should be in the best shape ever by playoff time. He's becoming the most dangerous player in the league again, maybe more than Jagr."
There's a subtext to Lemieux's surreal comeback, one less flattering to the league. Lemieux, 35, won't rewrite the record books—he's 13 100-point seasons or so behind Gretzky's career-points mark—but he might redefine the bloated language of the sport, in which star is attached to anyone who scores a point per game. Lemieux is blessed by having Jagr as a linemate, by working on the league's only power play that regularly uses two forwards, Alexei Kovalev and Martin Straka, on the points and by playing for a team that's not averse to taking offensive risks. However, his 1.68-points-per-game average has forced NHL players to reconsider how good they really are. Lemieux is like the math whiz who aces every test and trashes the grading curve. "If I say, 'Yes, I expected it,' I'd be lying," Dallas Stars right wing Brett Hull says. "If I say, 'No,' I'd be lying too. Obviously you know how great he is. On the other hand you say, 'How can he be doing this? He was gone 3� years.' "
Lemieux was supposed to have passed the torch, not quietly set fire to the reputation of an entire generation with it. Remember the dreamy TV introduction to the 2000 All-Star Game in Toronto, a filmed segment that showed Lemieux with Gretzky and Gordie Howe walking toward a frozen pond, symbolically ceding the game to Jagr, Lindros, Pavel Bure and Paul Kariya? Well, Jagr brooded until Lemieux returned, Lindros isn't playing, Bure's scoring hasn't ignited the dreadful Florida Panthers, and through Sunday, Kariya was scuffling along with 21 goals for the bedraggled Mighty Ducks of Anaheim.
"Mario picked the torch back up," Minnesota general manager Doug Risebrough says. "What it tells me is that we're in the business to promote our game, and we've probably promoted some people to star status who aren't really stars. They're obviously good players, but they aren't stars in the classic sense. Everybody in the league is trying to have that star so fans can identify with him, and then you get a guy like Lemieux back and you see what a true star is. It might bring a little bit of ammonia to the nostrils of the league."
Lemieux, though, is so good—he was averaging .28 more points per game through Sunday than Joe Sakic, the NHL scoring leader—that using him as the standard for stardom may be unrealistic. "Lemieux might be the most talented player ever," says Kariya. Says Lemaire, "He's the only guy who can make the puck disappear for a second. Here's the puck now—oops, where is it? He still has it." Compared with Lemieux's ability to make regular-season apathy vanish, to turn the Penguins into a circus team, to make every Pittsburgh game Christmas morning, his magic with the puck is a mere parlor trick.
The one place Lemieux doesn't stand out is in the Penguins' dressing room, at least no more than he ever did. General manager Craig Patrick has fixed up the place; he has imported some tough guys, like forwards Steve McKenna and Krzysztof Oliwa, traded for Mario allies in Bergevin and the rejuvenated Kevin Stevens, and made the room as homey as it was when Pittsburgh was winning Cups. Bergevin threatens to leap into Lemieux's lap twice a month when paychecks are distributed—"Our Santa," he teases—but Lemieux says he's now 99% player and 1% owner. He calls the office every few days but has been in the executive suite only a couple of times in the past several weeks, once for a morning staff meeting on Jan. 25, hours after he had gotten a hat trick against the Canadiens. As he walked into the boardroom, his executive assistant, Elaine Heufelder, said, "Not too shabby last night, boss." You think anyone ever said that to Chicago Blackhawks owner Bill Wirtz?
The playoffs will diffuse hockey's attention—despite having lost only four of their last 13 games through Sunday, the Penguins might not be around for long in the postseason if they don't upgrade their goaltending—but for the next month the Mario cam is on 24/7. This is his story, his season, one so remarkable it has ennobled and embarrassed the NHL at the same time. Barring injury, it should only get better.