The Pittsburgh Penguins have been one of life's verities. Styles might vary, attitudes might change, politics might shift. But the Penguins were an island of stability: They always stank.
Pick up the paper, look at the standings.... Yep, still in last place, those Pens. The world wasn't falling off its axis after all. It was somehow reassuring, though not particularly satisfying to the Pens themselves. In their largely miserable and tormented 19-year history, they have managed to rack up the following statistics: bankruptcies declared—1; seasons with a .500-or-better record—4; seasons without making the playoffs (not an easy feat in the NHL)—10.
That's why the rest of the hockey world was so stunned when the Penguins got off to a 7-0 start this season, one win short of tying the league record. Try saying it slowly: The Pittsburgh Penguins are the winningest team in hockey. Doesn't exactly roll off the tongue, does it? Of course, reality eventually caught up with the Pens, and after tying the Blues 3-3 in St. Louis on Saturday night, their season record stood at a more reasonable 8-3-1. But while the early giddiness in Pittsburgh has been tempered, around the rest of the Patrick Division there is an uncomfortable awareness that the Pens are legitimate contenders in the fight for playoff spots. As Penguins coach Bob Berry acknowledges, "From now on, we're going to have to muck and grind for every point we get."
But as long as Pittsburgh can keep 21-year-old center Mario Lemieux on the ice for some 35 to 40 minutes a game, the team's future will bear little resemblance to the sorry past. Lemieux, who has been a Penguin for two years but has yet to be in a playoff game, is a young man on a mission. He is second in the scoring race—16 goals and 14 assists, six points behind Wayne Gretzky—and has managed at least a point in every game. Lemieux is playing angry, inspired hockey at both ends of the rink, a departure from previous seasons when he occasionally lapsed into indifference.
"Mario knew that the thing he had to work hardest on this summer was his mind," says Craig Simpson, a Penguins center/right wing. "There were games last year when he wasn't quite there, but this year he's playing with an intensity and a fury. He knew he had to step it up. Being second in the league in scoring [last season] is a great accomplishment, especially behind Gretzky, but being 74 points behind [215 to 141] was really tough on Mario. He was angry about it."
Just as Larry Bird wants the ball when the Celtics are down one point with scant seconds remaining, so Lemieux now steps forward in tight situations. When the Penguins were behind the Whalers 2-1 in the final period last Tuesday, it was Lemieux who beat Whaler goalie Mike Liut on a breakaway. Four nights later in St. Louis, Pittsburgh again down by one goal in the third period, Lemieux scored and sent the game into overtime. Pittsburgh came away from these two games with only a tie, but Lemieux had served notice that he is ready to prove his greatness over a full 80-game season.
"He keeps getting better and, like Gretzky, he makes everyone around him better," said Liut. Just ask Warren Young, who scored 40 goals while playing on Lemieux's line in 1984 but only 22 after he signed last season with Detroit. Or talk to Terry Ruskowski, a veteran who scored a career-high 26 on Lemieux's left wing last year.
"Once they drafted Lemieux [in 1984], you knew it was just a matter of time," says Bob Plager, a St. Louis Blues assistant coach. "The question is depth. Obviously the Penguins could never afford to lose Lemieux. But they also can call on some people who you wouldn't be scared to use. In previous years, they'd get an injury and bring someone up from the minors who deserved to be in the minors. But now they have some quality."
There was the rub the last two seasons. Lemieux would carry the Penguins past the playoff race's three-quarter pole, then tire, and Pittsburgh would quietly fade in the stretch. It was Marvelous Mario and 19 guys named Moe. Now it's Mario, one guy named Moe (Mantha) and an improving, young defense—notably Doug Bodger, Jim Johnson and Ville Siren—which allowed one less goal per game last season than it did in 1984.
"There are four good lines now," says Young. The Pens are particularly strong in the middle with Lemieux, Mike Bullard, John Chabot and Simpson, as versatile and as deep a center-ice lineup as can be found in the NHL.