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A Franchise that suffered through nearly a quarter century of incompetence, that once had its office doors padlocked by the Internal Revenue Service and that in 1984 placed its last hope for survival in the hands of an 18-year-old named Mario Lemieux saw its entire sorry history smoothed over with Zamboni-like precision last Saturday night. Led by Lemieux, the Pittsburgh Penguins won the Stanley Cup by routing the Minnesota North Stars 8-0 in Game 6 of the final series. Afterward, Lemieux was awarded the Conn Smythe Trophy as the MVP of the playoffs. Then, as proud as any captain who ever held the Cup aloft—and, at 6'4", taller than most of them—he hoisted it as high as it has ever been hoisted.
Certainly few players have ever been required to lift a franchise the way Lemieux was asked to lift the Penguins, who until this season had not advanced beyond the second round in postseason play. "There wasn't going to be hockey in Pittsburgh anymore if not for Mario," said goalie Tom Barrasso. "And we wouldn't have won the Cup without him."
Lemieux had five goals and seven assists in the championship series, despite sitting out Game 3 with back spasms. He wound up with at least one point in each of his last 18 playoff games, and he scored at least one goal in each of his last 10. In Game 2 of the series against Minnesota, he had a breathtaking one-on-one goal that reversed the momentum of the game, which the Penguins went on to win 4-1 to tie the series. In Game 5, he scored a goal and set up two more in a four-goal first-period blitz that gave Pittsburgh a 6-4 victory and control of the series. Finally, with the Penguins leading 1-0 in Game 6, Lemieux deflected a pass during a 5-on-3 Minnesota power play, then forced the Stars' Mike Modano to take him down. The resulting penalty eased the crisis to a mere 5-on-4. Moments later, Lemieux broke away and made three separate backhand-to-forehand moves en route to scoring a shorthanded goal that made it 2-0. He would add three assists.
At practically every pivotal moment against Minnesota, as well as in the Penguins' six-game triumph over the Boston Bruins in the Wales Conference finals, Lemieux responded with either a point or a strong shift. In the finals, he also played strong defense, continually bumped North Stars off the puck in the Pittsburgh zone and patrolled center ice like a minesweeper. "It seemed like anything that was within 20 feet he reached," said Minnesota's Dave Gagner. "When somebody that big and that good wants to win that badly, there isn't much you can do."
"We were hoping that Mario would be just regular," said North Star coach Bob Gainey, "but he wasn't." Instead, Lemieux was driven and dominant, exactly what his critics had insisted he would never be.
Lemieux has been trying to live up to extraordinary expectations since the Penguins made him the No. 1 selection in the 1984 draft. Lemieux, who is among the few players who possess a fifth gear, was generally content to play in fourth gear his first few seasons. Sure, he got his points—he scored 141 in 1985-86—but Pittsburgh was slow to assemble talent around him and didn't make the playoffs his first four seasons. Denied the experience of playing in big games, Lemieux had no understanding of the level he would have to reach to win them.
That changed in the 1987 Canada Cup, when Lemieux, challenged by world-class opposition and pushed by Team Canada linemate Wayne Gretzky, played with as much heart as talent, scored a tournament-high 11 goals and led Canada to victory. "He was a different person when he came back from that," says Pittsburgh forward Phil Bourque. Lemieux out-scored Gretzky in each of the next two seasons and performed well in his first playoff appearance, as the Penguins reached the seventh game of the divisional finals in 1989.
Yet Lemieux's emergence as the game's premier talent while Gretzky was still near his peak offended large portions of the hockey world. It seemed impossible that such a gifted player could come along and challenge Gretzky's accomplishments so soon. Denial was a common reaction: There was no room for another player of Gretzky's caliber until the Great One's career had started to wind down. In addition, Lemieux, a reluctant and tepid interview, has suffered in off-the-ice comparisons to the outgoing Gretzky and to the St. Louis Blues' effervescent Brett Hull, who has emerged over the past two seasons as the NHL's top goal scorer.
Moreover, Gretzky won four Stanley Cups while with the Edmonton Oilers and brought the moribund Los Angeles Kings to life. These team achievements cemented his place as the greatest player of all time. Lemieux, on the other hand, had to deal with the trumped-up charge that he wasn't a winner. The evidence may have been circumstantial, but Lemieux had no way of disproving it with the woeful Penguins. "I don't care what people write and say about me," said Lemieux last Saturday night, "as long as I have the respect of my teammates."
The criticism "has to have hurt him a little," said defenseman Paul Coffey, one of Lemieux's closest friends on the Penguins, "but I know it would hurt him more if he had thought his teammates believed any of that stuff. He was going to hear it until he won a Stanley Cup. It was unfair, but that's just the way it goes."