For Mario Lemieux this wasn't a hockey game but an insult, one long Don Rickles routine at his expense. His linen-and-fine-china Pittsburgh Penguins were trailing 1-0 in the third period to the fries-with-that expansion Minnesota Wild, a team that had subdued the Penguins three days before and touched off an exchange of barbs between Lemieux and Minnesota coach Jacques Lemaire about the aesthetics of NHL hockey. The Wild embodies the trapping style of play that helped drive Lemieux out of hockey in 1997. Now, with nearly 13 minutes remaining, Lemieux decided he'd had enough. He was going to take this game and shake some sense into it. He retrieved the puck deep in the Pittsburgh zone and started out four-on-four, his body language screaming, This shall not pass.
Lemieux didn't quite go coast-to-coast. He lugged the puck over the Penguins' blue line, and then the red line, brushing off a hook by Marian Gaborik as if Gaborik were a piece of lint on his suit. As he crossed the Wild's blue line, he curled to create extra space and rifled the puck from 30 feet. The shot, from in-side the right face-off circle, handcuffed goaltender Manny Fernandez and went in. It was a goal scorer's goal—a shot that pluggers would have buried in Fernandez's glove or pads. Nine minutes later, when Lemieux fired the puck toward the net from the right half boards, it struck a skate in front and caromed past Fernandez for the game-winner. This might not have been a battle for hockey's soul, but it wasn't a bad tussle for two points: Mario 2, Minnesota 1. Who's the hockey puck now?
There's only one real story in the NHL these days. The other daily comings and goings—Wayne Gretzky's purchase of the Phoenix Coyotes, the sale of the Montreal Canadiens to an American, the Philadelphia Flyers' estranged Eric Lindros holding his breath until his face turns Toronto Maple Leaf blue—are mere score-keeping while the hockey world gawks at Lemieux.
From a standing start on Dec. 27, when he came out of a 3�-year retirement with a goal and two assists, Lemieux has been weaving through the scoring list like a New York City taxi. With 24 goals and 23 assists after a two-goal, two-assist performance in a 7-5 win over the New York Rangers last Friday night, Lemieux had more points than anyone on Minnesota, Montreal or San Jose and more goals than the leaders of six NHL teams. Pittsburgh had averaged 1.14 more goals per game since he put the uniform back on—he'd figured in 41.6% of the Penguins' scores in that span—but even opponents had benefited from the return of Mario the Munificent. He'd played in 12 road games, and not a ticket to those matches had gone unsold, not even to games played in the usual sea of indifference in New Jersey or in the NHL's Shawshank, also known as the Nassau Coliseum, home of the inept New York Islanders. He might as well have parted the Red Sea.
"This is the best time of my life," Lemieux said recently, lingering in Pittsburgh's deserted dressing room after practice. "I had a lot of great moments in the early 1990s, but to be back and have a chance to play one more time has been great, especially with me playing well and the team playing well."
When Lemieux returned two months ago, his game was static and cerebral, a triumph of velvet hands and a Mensa head. He was playing left wing then, venturing no farther in his end than his blue line, loitering until a defenseman could find him with a breakout pass, preparing to saucer the puck to linemate Jaromir Jagr and maybe work a give-and-go. He was poetry in slow motion, running the game at his own meter. However, in the last several weeks Lemieux settled back in at center, and he has begun winning face-offs (44 of 79 in his last four games through Sunday), deigning to backcheck, skating more, stretching his game on occasions to nearly 200 feet.
Lemieux, whose chronic back ailment was a factor in his retirement, felt his back seize up at practice on Feb. 9, touching off an understandable panic in Pittsburgh. But while the coccyx crowed and massage therapist Tommy Plasko worked overtime, something wonderful was happening elsewhere on Lemieux's body. His legs, heavy after the All-Star break, suddenly felt as fresh as they had in almost a decade. I [e was struck by an urge to grab the puck and go, to beat defenders one-on-one, to do substantially more than fill in the blanks. His legs carried him to that game-turner against Minnesota—"An old Mario goal, a late '80s-early '90s goal," Penguins defense-man Marc Bergevin called it—and to a rebound in overtime against the New Jersey Devils two nights later that forced goalie Martin Brodeur, who had just foiled Jagr on a breakaway, to make a second save in a string as spectacular as any in his career.
Although skating hasn't been a cornerstone of Lemieux's game ("He's never been a skater who will go up and down all the time," says Lemaire, who first coached against Lemieux in junior hockey), his underrated speed can open up more offensive possibilities than he'd been opening since his return. Lemieux's success has been almost freakish. The scary part is that until recently it has unfolded in second gear.
"My goal is to be better than I was in 1997," says Lemieux, who led the NHL in scoring in '96-97 with 122 points in 76 games. "I probably won't be as good as I was [in Pittsburgh's Stanley Cup years of '91 and '92, when he averaged 1.95 points per game], but I can get pretty close. If my back hangs in and I get my legs to where I want them, I can get there. I could carry the puck in the neutral zone against Minnesota, and once I'm able to do that regularly, my game will go to the next level."
Lemieux, who paraded around the dressing room three weeks ago with a supportive wrap around his lower back, said he might take off the second of back-to-back games as a prophylaxis. Indeed, he sat out Pittsburgh's 4-3 loss to the Washington Capitals last Saturday, the night after the Ranger game. It was the first time since he returned that he had missed a match.