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It was a year ago next week that Mario Lemieux changed the NHL landscape with one night's work. Going into the Feb. 9 All-Star Game in St. Louis, the Pittsburgh Penguin center with the pterodactyl reach was clearly the second-brightest star in hockey—Avis to Wayne Gretzky's Hertz. But by the time the game was over, the issue was considerably clouded.
Lemieux, then 22, dominated play as only Gretzky supposedly could. His three assists and three goals in the Wales Conference's 6-5 victory, including the game-winner in sudden death, earned him a truck as the MVP. True, an NHL All-Star Game is not the most rigorous test—the last time a bodycheck was thrown in one. Jack Adams was a coach, not a division. But since his All-Star explosion a year ago, Lemieux has not cooled.
His 41 points in the first 12 games this season amounted to the best start in NHL history. Had Lemieux not sprained his right wrist on Nov. 3 and missed the better part of four games, his lead over Gretzky in the scoring race—137 to 108 points as of Sunday—would be even greater. On New Year's Eve, Lemieux had a hat trick 11 minutes into an 8-6 victory over the New Jersey Devils (he finished with five goals and three assists, his second eight-point performance of the season). Last month he had a hand in 14 straight goals over four games, the streak including a two-goal, five-assist eruption in a 7-4 win over the Oilers in Edmonton on Jan. 21.
"Once he gets behind you, he cannot be legally stopped," says Penguin coach Gene Ubriaco.
"You just hope to hold him to a point or two a game," says Flyer general manager Bobby Clarke.
"He's unbelievably good now, and we don't know how good he will be," says Gordie Howe, the NHL's alltime leading scorer.
So, who's Hertz and who's Avis now?
The statistics favor Lemieux. Last season he won the scoring title over Gretzky, 168 points to 149. This year he is on pace to break Gretzky's single-season scoring record of 215 points (1985-86), and he has an outside shot at eclipsing Gretzky's record of 92 goals ('81-82); both records were thought to be unassailable at the time they were set. Lemieux's enormous reach, puck-handling skills ("The best I've ever seen," says Ubriaco), and ability to drive through defenders or, when necessary, carry them on his back, make him the game's most dangerous player in one-on-one situations.
Even one of Gretzky's teammates, Los Angeles goalie Glenn Healy, admits that on a penalty shot he would rather face Gretzky than Lemieux. However, hockey is fundamentally a team game. "Wayne does a better job of using his teammates," says Howe. "Mario is more of an individual talent."
But the regular-season awards also are going Lemieux's way. Last season he wrested from Gretzky the Hart Trophy (for the league's most valuable player, as voted by the hockey writers), a prize that had been Gretzky's for eight straight years. Lemieux also won the Lester Pearson Award (MVP as voted by the players). Gretzky is 28, and if his sun is not past its zenith, it soon will be. Lemieux is 23 and just coming into his prime.