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In French Le Mieux means "the best." But for Mario Lemieux, the Pittsburgh Penguins' splendid center, his recent run of luck hasn't been the best at all. Last week, after spending nearly a year out of action because of a back injury, Lemieux returned to the ice in a manner that was both spectacular and frustrating. It was spectacular in that he scored two goals and four assists in his first four games back. But it was frustrating because in the second period of the fourth game, a 6-2 home-ice win over the Boston Bruins last Saturday afternoon, Lemieux pulled a groin muscle and had to return to the sidelines, possibly for a week or more.
Four days earlier, when Lemieux loped around the rink in the final waraup for his debut in front of the home folks, a game against the Washington Capitals, Pittsburgh's Civic Arena shook with anticipation. Many of the capacity crowd of 16,236 held up placards that read MARIO, and he basked in the thrill of an evening he had feared might never come. His return before the doting Pittsburgh fans was such an event that Penguin coach Bob Johnson had to warn his players to remain focused.
"Don't get caught up in the show," Johnson said at the morning skate. "Make sure you play the game."
What he meant was, Don't just watch Mario, help him. Last season, the Penguins spent the first 58 games admiring Lemieux, who, until he was forced to the sidelines on Feb. 14, was on his way to his third straight league scoring title and was five games shy of Wayne Gretzky's NHL consecutive-game scoring record of 51. The Penguins were 27-27-4 with Lemieux in the lineup, then went 5-12-4 before he returned for the final regular-season game in a valiant but unsuccessful attempt to get Pittsburgh into the playoffs for only the second time in the last eight years.
After the season, Lemieux underwent surgery to remove the herniated portion of a disc. Later, doctors discovered that an infection unrelated to his surgery had settled in his spine. That caused him to miss the first 50 games this season. In his absence, however, the Penguins were 26-21-3, putting them just seven points behind the Patrick Division-leading New York Rangers. Not only that, Pittsburgh was leading the NHL in goals scored and, just as important, was playing improved defense under Johnson, the former University of Wisconsin and Calgary Flame coach who is in his first season with the Penguins.
The big question on Lemieux's return was whether the rest of the Penguins would simply take a seat and enjoy the show. "I'd worry about that a lot more if everybody in this room hadn't been asked that so many times," said left wing Phil Bourque. "Keep asking. It's good for us."
The initial effects of Lemieux's return were nothing but positive. In his first game back in the lineup, a 6-5 win over the Nordiques at Quebec on Jan. 26, he contributed three assists. Then, against the Caps three nights later, he reminded that rabid Civic Arena throng why he is called Le Magnifique. With the Caps leading 2-0 in the first period, he used his pterodactyl-like wings to knock the puck off defenseman Calle Johansson's stick to right wing Mark Recchi, who quickly fed back to Lemieux. The grand Penguin then laid a goalmouth gimme in the path of line mate Bob Errey, who put it in to cut the lead in half. In the third period, Lemieux put an outside-inside move on Johansson that forced Washington goalie Don Beaupre to make a superior save, and on that same shift he twice stole the puck for two more Penguin chances.
A few minutes later, Lemieux got his leg out to deflect Cap defenseman Al Iafrate's clearing attempt to right wing Jaromir Jagr, who stretched Beaupre across the crease and laid a pass back to Lemieux for an easy—well, Mario made it look easy—goal that tied the game. "I can't believe that a guy could be off that long and play like that," Bourque said later. "It must be a great feeling to know you can take total control of a game." Rookie defenseman Paul Stanton's goal beat the Caps 3-2 in overtime.
In Philadelphia two nights after that, Lemieux scored a goal as the Penguins lost 4-2 to the Flyers, before the injury jinx hit him again on Saturday. The Penguins were 3-1 in the games Lemieux played, and even with a 6-3 loss to the Bruins in Boston on Sunday, they had cut the Rangers' lead to a mere two points.
Now if Lemieux's luck changes, maybe the Penguins can be le mieux, too.