PITTSBURGH -- Before ending his 3 1/2-year retirement last month, Mario Lemieux predicted he would play at a high level. Not even he predicted this.
Lemieux needed less than a month to get the first three-goal game of his newly resumed career, a natural hat trick that carried the suddenly defensive Pittsburgh Penguins to a 3-1 victory over the Montreal Canadiens on Wednesday night.
Lemieux, responding to cheers of ''Mar-i-ooo, Mar-i-ooo'' from the 13th consecutive sellout crowd to watch him during his remarkably successful comeback, scored in each period for his 40th career three-goal game.
Only Wayne Gretzky with 50 career hat tricks has more in the NHL history. Lemieux went into retirement in 1997 tied with Mike Bossy with 39.
Lemieux again saved one of his big nights for his hometown Canadiens, the team he grew up rooting for. His last game with three or more goals was at Montreal on Jan. 26, 1997, when he tied an NHL record with four goals in the third period.
Remarkably, Lemieux scored his three goals Wednesday on his first three shots.
''It's nice to get one (hat trick) because I've had a couple of other opportunities,'' said Lemieux, who already has three multiple-goal games since returning on Dec. 27. ''I still get up to play Montreal, it's where my family lives and I have a lot of friends there watching me.''
It seems that most everyone in the building was impressed -- everyone except linemate Jaromir Jagr, that is.
''I'm surprised it took him four years to get another hat trick,'' Jagr said, laughing. ''He's supposed to be the best player, and it takes him four years to get a hat trick?''
Penguins goaltender Garth Snow was working on his second consecutive shutout -- he beat the Blackhawks 4-0 Sunday night -- until Montreal rookie Eric Chouinard scored his first career goal at 17:48 of the third.
Chouinard was called up recently to play on Montreal's top line due to a series of injuries that has left the Canadiens without 11 players.
Lemieux's comeback, already a success, seems to grow more spectacular with every game. He has 14 goals and 26 points in 13 games, a two-points-per-game pace that nearly matches his career average of 2.006.
''But I'm still not where I want to be, because my legs aren't there yet,'' Lemieux said.
Lemieux's effort came against an opponent determined to take away any open ice from him. The Canadiens stubbornly dropped their forwards back into the neutral zone whenever possible, stalling their offense but limiting the Penguins' breakaway chances.
''They play the trap and they always had five back and didn't have any forecheck, but we were patient and we waited for our chances,'' Lemieux said.
The strategy mostly worked -- except against Lemieux.
''Well, he was outstanding -- this wasn't his first hat trick and it won't be his last,'' Montreal coach Michel Therrien said. ''He was the difference.''
Capitals 2, Panthers 1
WASHINGTON -- Peter Bondra scored twice, including a follow-up shot with 11:46 left that gave the Washington Capitals a victory over the Florida Panthers on Wednesday night.
Andrei Nikolishin started the deciding play with a shot from near the right boards that Florida goalie Roberto Luongo knocked away. But the puck bounced into the middle where Bondra was fighting off Florida defenseman Anders Eriksson.
Hurricanes 3, Rangers 2
NEW YORK -- Niclas Wallin, David Tanabe and Martin Gelinas erased a Carolina deficit with second-period goals as the Hurricanes split a home-and-home series against New York.
The Rangers, who earned a 5-2 road victory at Carolina on Monday, had a three-game home winning streak and a season-high five-game unbeaten run (4-0-1) snapped.
Bruins 2, Maple Leafs 1
TORONTO -- Jason Allison ended a 14-game scoring drought and Andrei Nazarov added the game-winner in the third period as Boston ended a three-game losing streak.
Mats Sundin scored for the Maple Leafs, who have just five wins in their last 19 games.
Red Wings 4, Predators 3
DETROIT -- Defenseman Mathieu Dandenault had a goal and an assist as Detroit snapped a two-game losing streak and ended Nashville's three-game winning streak.
Pat Verbeek and Martin Lapointe had power-play goals, and Aaron Ward also scored for Detroit.
Devils 4, Stars 1
DALLAS -- Petr Sykora had a goal and an assist and Patrik Elias had two assists as New Jersey scored four times in the first 11:21, including three goals in a 1:11 span.
New Jersey goalie Martin Brodeur, unbeaten in his last 14 games, made 32 saves as the Devils improved to 6-0-1 in their last seven road games.
Canucks 6, Coyotes 2
VANCOUVER, British Columbia -- Ed Jovanovski and Mattias Ohlund each had a pair of assists and six players scored as Vancouver ended a four-game losing streak.
Goals by Josh Holden, Markus Naslund, Trent Klatt, Harold Druken and Jarkko Ruutu staked the Canucks to a 5-0 lead by the 7:05 mark of the second period. Todd Bertuzzi completed Vancouver's scoring with a third-period goal.
Wild 5, Mighty Ducks 0
ANAHEIM, Calif. -- Roman Simicek, acquired by Minnesota less than two weeks ago, scored his first two goals for the Wild and ended a personal goal-scoring drought that dated back to Nov. 1.
Sergei Krivokrasov and Scott Pellerin each had a goal and an assist for Minnesota. Wes Walz also added a goal.
Sharks 6, Oilers 1
SAN JOSE, Calif. -- Jeff Friesen, Brad Stuart, Marco Sturm, Niklas Sundstrom, Patrick Marleau and Mike Ricci scored as San Jose snapped a five-game winless streak.
Sharks goalie Evgeni Nabokov finished with 22 saves.
Defenseman Sean Brown got the lone goal for the Oilers, who managed just one shot in the second period.
Edmonton's Dominic Roussel stopped 21 shots.
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