CANONSBURG, Pa. -- The shooting touch is there, the leg strength is coming. After 3 1/2 years away, Mario Lemieux seemed back at home Tuesday in his first practice with the Pittsburgh Penguins since announcing his comeback.
Lemieux steered shots into the top of the net, just as he did in winning six NHL scoring titles, and had no trouble keeping up during 3-on-3 rushes or end-to-end skating drills.
After an hour-long practice and 20 minutes of extra shooting -- he was the last player off the ice -- Lemieux said he must develop only one aspect of his game to again be the player he once was.
''I'm not going to step on the ice and score 5-6 points my first game,'' said Lemieux, the Penguins owner-player who plans to return Dec. 27 against Toronto. ''I was talking with (coach) Ivan (Hlinka), and he said, 'You're going to have to be patient with yourself and give yourself time, and not get frustrated.' I've made up my mind that's what I'm going to have to do, be patient, and everything will work out.''
But will the fans be as patient? Lemieux's unexpected comeback has clearly excited Penguins' fans, nearly 500 of whom turned out for a practice that was televised live on a Pittsburgh cable sports channel.
Last week, the 35-year-old Lemieux said he wouldn't return unless he could again be hockey's best player. He won't predict when his game will be at that level.
''I've really made up my mind that I have to be patient this time,'' said Lemieux, a three-time MVP and one of the sport's most dominating players. ''The fact that I've been off for so long, to come back at that level is not easy. I'm in pretty good shape physically and mentally, but it takes time.''
It didn't take Hlinka long to put him on the top line alongside Jaromir Jagr and Jan Hrdina, though Lemieux said he has not discussed where he will play.
''I thought I would be on the fourth line,'' he said.
Not a chance, not with so many fans in the stands. Forward Martin Straka peeked out of the dressing room a half-hour before practice began, saw the stands nearly filled, and said, ''Oh, my gosh.''
''It was just like a game,'' goaltender Rich Parent said. ''Any time he scored, they cheered.''
Lemieux looked winded by the end of practice, and was breathing hard during post-practice drills, but insisted he felt fine. He said the private workouts he began three weeks ago with former teammate and fitness instructor Jay Caufield were more demanding than a routine practice.
''The big questions are his leg strength and his stamina,'' said assistant coach Joe Mullen, Lemieux's former teammate. ''That's a lot of time to be off from anything, but he's always been a natural at the game and his skills should come back easily.''
Never a fan of practice or conditioning, Lemieux realizes both are important as he begins a comeback unprecedented not only because of who is making it, but how long he has been away from the game.
''I think I'm in much better shape than when I was 22, 23,'' he said. ''I never used to train in the offseason, and all of this is new to me.
''My legs were pretty strong skating-wise and I think it's just going to be a matter of time and getting used to the traffic again. Obviously, I'll know more in 3-4 days, but the first practice, I was pretty happy with it,''
Lemieux arrived at the Penguins' suburban practice rink 2 1/4 hours before the 11 o'clock workout. He said the locker room was a little quieter than normal, or just as it often is whenever a new player arrives.
''I was a little bit nervous, which I didn't think I would be, and I had trouble sleeping for a while, just thinking about practicing with the guys again,'' Lemieux said. ''I didn't know what to expect but, right now, I feel pretty good about my progress the last couple of weeks and about my improvement, and that's going to give me a lot of confidence to go forward.
''I feel very, very close to it.''
Asked if it will be disconcerting for the Penguins to suddenly be dressing alongside their owner, Mullen said the opposite should be true.
''The guys in the room have to say, 'Hey, I have to perform for this guy,''' Mullen said. ''I think it will be a big positive, getting the best player in hockey back.''
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