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While still willing to scrap, Lemieux is not a good fighter by NHL standards. Two years ago he took on the Washington Capitals' Bob Gould, who had been shadowing him, and Gould coldcocked him. Lemieux now rarely fights, but to survive in the black-and-blue Patrick Division, he has become adept at elbowing rivals, slashing them, kicking their skates out from under them and, on rare occasions, putting them in headlocks.
Lemieux scores many of his goals by harnessing his obstinacy. He uses his NBA-sized body to best advantage against defenders, staving them off with one hand and controlling the puck with the other. Last April, in a game the Penguins needed to win to stay in contention for a playoff berth, Lemieux was skating in on Capitals goalie Clint Malarchuck when Washington defenseman Larry Murphy tackled him from behind. Sliding along on his derriere, Lemieux shortened up on his stick and chopped a shot past Malarchuck that won the game 7-6 in overtime.
The next night the playoff dream ended. The Devils clinched the division's last playoff spot, and for the sixth straight season the Penguins missed the cut.
Howe remembers being at a Penguin game last season. "The score was tied at the end of the game, and there was a face-off in the Penguins' end," he says. "[Former Pittsburgh coach Pierre] Creamer took Lemieux off the ice so someone else could take the face-off. I remember being surprised by that." Lemieux is still not used on the draw as much as some other centers in the league, face-offs being the least of his strengths, and Howe says, "If this is a weakness, then he should stay after practice and work on it. That's what Wayne would do."
That's what Wayne would do.
Much has been made of Lemieux's great timing, his ability to control the puck and keep controlling it, like a python waiting to strike, until the goalie has flopped and it remains only for Lemieux to pick his corner and shoot high. From a more cosmic perspective, Lemieux's timing is lousy: Had he arrived in the NHL in an era other than Gretzky's, he would have had the whole pantheon to himself.
But to measure up in this, the Gretzky Decade, the challenger must fuse his individual statistics to playoff success for his team. Until Lemieux does that, he will remain No. 2.