Lemieux enthused by NHL's new officiating

Posted: Friday, October 18, 2002

PITTSBURGH -- No player as old as Mario Lemieux has won an NHL scoring title. Not yet.

The 37-year-old Pittsburgh Penguins star is thriving in the league's new obstruction-free environment, piling up goals and assists with almost effortless ease the way he did 10 years ago.

And Lemieux thinks a seventh scoring crown is possible.

He has four goals and six assists in his last three games, and it helps that he no longer is forced to inch his way up the ice. The NHL's neutral-zone crackdown has curtailed the clutching and grabbing that hindered Lemieux and so many other stars.

Though he had similar scoring flurries when he came out of retirement nearly two years ago, piling up 76 points in 43 games, this might be the best Lemieux has played since he quit for 44 months after the 1996-97 season.

Free of the hip pain that made him a shell of himself a year ago, when he scored only six goals in 24 games, Lemieux doesn't know if he can keep up his current 2.5 points per game pace.

Then again, he's not saying he won't take a run at the record for being the oldest to win a scoring title, set by Gordie Howe at age 35.

''If I'm feeling good -- and I don't have to practice too much -- I'll be all right,'' Lemieux said. ''If I'm healthy and skating well ... you're not going to get three or four points every night, but I'm sure going to try.''

The key, he said, is to play 70-to-75 games -- a figure he's reached only twice since 1989 -- and for the league to maintain the anti-obstruction policy that he has long sought.

Could Lemieux even threaten the 200-point mark? He did in 1989, when he had 85 goals and 114 assists in 76 games.

Lemieux laughed at that notion, one that would have seemed silly last season, when only Calgary's Jarome Iginla scored 50 goals.

''I'm not 25 anymore,'' Lemieux said. ''We've had three good games, but 200 points is out of the question for everybody, even though the game is a little bit more wide open. But I'll see what happens if I stay healthy.''

Lemieux argued for years the NHL was diluting its product by allowing role players, some with minimal talent, to neutralize scorers with defensive tactics that violated rules never enforced.

What finally might have altered the NHL's stance was the open ice, the free-flowing play and the star-friendly atmosphere that made the Winter Olympics so enjoyable in February. The Olympic hockey drew the sport's biggest U.S. TV ratings since the 1980 ''Miracle on Ice'' Olympics, helped by matchups such as United States-Canada and United States-Russia.

That's one reason that Lemieux hopes this won't be one of those cosmetic crackdowns that disappears by December, as previous NHL anti-obstruction stances did.

The NHL plans to hold major reviews at the 20-, 40-, 60- and 80-game marks to make sure the quality of play hasn't deteriorated, and referees have been warned they could be demoted to the AHL if they go back to calling games the way they used to.

Maybe it wasn't a coincidence that NHL officials chief Andy van Hellemond was watching Wednesday night, when Lemieux assisted on all of Pittsburgh's goals in a 3-2 victory over Atlanta.

''It's much better,'' Lemieux said. ''The league wants to make a statement, and so far it's working. It's wide open with a lot of skating and puck movement, and that's the way it should be. I think they're serious about it.''

If the games had been called this way five years ago, Lemieux said, he might not have retired.

''Being healthy is No. 1, but I'm sure it would have made a difference,'' he said. ''The way the game is being played now, it's a lot more fun for everybody. It's making a big difference.''

Subscribe to Peninsula Clarion

Trending this week:


© 2017. All Rights Reserved. | Contact Us