PITTSBURGH For the first time in his NHL career, Mario Lemieux isn't the most-watched player in the Pittsburgh Penguins' training camp. Doesn't get the most interview requests. Doesn't wear the best-selling jersey number in town.
Thanks to No. 87 that's super rookie Sidney Crosby, of course No. 66 is playing the unaccustomed role of No. 2 in a town where he's always been the No. 1 star. It's one the Hall of Famer gladly accepts since, as the team owner as well as the on-ice captain, it means new stars are coming and better days are ahead for a franchise coming off three consecutive playoff-free seasons and a bankruptcy filing six years ago.
But check the NHL preseason scoring summaries and it's almost as if Lemieux has turned back the hands of time to the days when he was 18, Crosby's age. On Tuesday, Lemieux had a four-point night against Columbus. On Sunday, it was another goal and three more assists against Washington, all for a player who turns 40 on Wednesday, the very night Crosby makes his NHL debut.
These were preseason games, against diluted lineups and opponents interested mostly in getting off the ice injury free. But they might offer the first sign that, even as Crosby awaits the mantle of stardom, the Penguins remain Lemieux's team, and always will be as long as the No. 8 goal scorer in NHL history keeps playing.
''He's what it is,'' coach Eddie Olczyk said Monday. ''He's everything.''
With rule changes designed to create more scoring, the best lineup around him in five years and, yes, Sid the Kid waiting to become the Next Mario, Lemieux could be ready to have the best season he's had in years. Even if it's been nine years since he played a full season and almost two years since he last scored a goal.
''I think he looks more than pretty good,'' Olczyk said. ''And that's what we're expecting, nothing less.''
Lemieux isn't predicting his first 100-point season since 1996-97, his last full season before beginning a 44-month retirement that ended in December 2000. As always, health is his No. 1 issue following years of debilitating back pain and hip injuries that, in 2001-02 and 2003-04, limited him to 24 and 10 games, respectively.
''I feel pretty good,'' he said Monday. ''My back has been very good the last few months, my hip, and I did a lot of work this summer. It's a long season, obviously, and there might be some ups and downs, but so far I'm starting healthy.''
He can only hope it's a long season, especially now that the NHL has adopted the rule changes he has long sought to do away with the clutching and grabbing that, for 10 years, has dragged the play of star-quality players.
down to a checking-line level.
''There's a lot more open ice ... you're able to make plays now where before it was pretty difficult to get over the blue line at times,'' he said. ''There's a lot more flow, and I think it's going to be reflected in a lot more scoring.''
For years, Lemieux argued the NHL was the only league that intentionally allowed its best players to have their skills eroded nightly not by superior defensive play but by skirting or abusing the rules. The effect was to eliminate the very talent and playmaking fans pay to see.
''It took a while, but I think it's a nice change for everybody for the fans, who want to see some good hockey, and the talent being able to go out and play the way they can,'' he said. ''I'm excited. I think it's going to make our job the stars' job a little bit easier the way they call the game now. I'm looking forward to the year.''
Almost as much his new linemate, 25-year-old Ryan Malone, is looking forward to playing alongside the player he watched up close, since a very young age, as the son of chief Penguins scout Greg Malone.
''Everyone thinks he's old, his birthday's coming up, the big 40,'' Malone said, laughing. ''He looks great, obviously got some jump in his step. Hopefully, he'll lead the way for us.''
The key, as always, is for Lemieux to stay healthy. He doesn't worry that it's been since Nov. 1, 2003, when he last played he hurt his hip that day and didn't return the rest of the season or that he has played more than 50 games only once since 1996-97.
''I'm kind of used to long layoffs,'' said Lemieux, who has been injured, retired or sidelined for the equivalent of 9 1/2 of the 21 years since he first played an NHL game.
With new teammates such as Crosby, Ziggy Palffy, John LeClair, Mark Recchi, Sergei Gonchar and Jocelyn Thibault around, Lemieux is bound to feel younger than he did playing for the NHL's worst team two years ago.
''With the supporting cast he has, he can just let things happen and make the players around him even greater,'' Olczyk said.
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