Lemieux still magnificent

Posted: Thursday, December 28, 2000

PITTSBURGH -- Nobody could possibly play like this after 3 1/2 years of retirement. Nobody, that is, except Mario Lemieux.

Lemieux made a remarkable return in his first game since 1997, scoring a goal and assisting on two others -- one on his first pass on his first shift, no less -- as the Pittsburgh Penguins beat the Toronto Maple Leafs 5-0 Wednesday night.

Lemieux always delighted in doing the improbable during his Hall of Fame career from 1984-97, and this game was no different. Not even he expected to be this good this soon after being away this long.

''I was a little surprised by the way I played,'' Lemieux said. ''My legs were strong. I didn't play that much in the third period, but my legs were still strong.''

Lemieux estimated it would take 2-to-3 weeks to get his game back. Instead, it was more like 33 seconds -- the time that had elapsed when he assisted on Jaromir Jagr's goal on his first shift in an NHL game since April 1997.

Lemieux's goal came at 10:33 of the second period. Jagr, previously slumping but clearly motivated by again playing alongside the player he once idolized, skated down the right wing, faked out defenseman Dimitri Yushkevich, then fed a cross-ice pass to a fast-charging Lemieux in the left circle.

Lemieux buried the shot past goaltender Curtis Joseph -- and Lemieux's delighted family, led by wife Nathalie and 4-year-old son Austin, exchanged high-fives in a private box.

''I yelled at him to give me the puck, and he got it to me,'' Lemieux said.

As he left the ice following his 614th career goal, Lemieux managed a little smile as he smacked gloves with his charged-up teammates along the bench.

''That's what I had in mind, to be successful and play at a high level,'' Lemieux said.

Lemieux wasn't done, either. Less than four minutes later, he made a perfect pass to set up Jan Hrdina's ninth goal of the season and put the Penguins up 4-0.

''I've thought about this for a long time, and it was great to get back,'' Lemieux said. ''It was a great feeling when I stepped on the ice.''

Lemieux's comeback clearly drove the Penguins, who had lost their previous five home games, their longest such slump since they lost seven in a row the season before Lemieux arrived as an 18-year-old rookie.

Now, nearly 17 years later, Lemieux still has a flair for the dramatic -- and, it could be argued, the near-impossible, considering how well he played after a layoff as long as the careers of some less-skilled players.

''He's in the best shape I've ever seen him in,'' said Alexei Kovalev, who also scored. ''It's like he never left.''

Wednesday's performance was the kind that can help land a player in the Hall of Fame, except that Lemieux is already there, having been voted in a few months after retiring in 1997.

''It was a great night,'' NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said.

Lemieux, the first owner-player in modern pro sports history, decided to come back in part to get Jagr out of his slump, and that worked immediately.

Jagr, who has won every NHL scoring title since Lemieux retired but was only 17th in the league going into the game, scored twice, including a short-handed breakaway goal with three seconds left in the second period that made it 5-0.

''I didn't know what to expect, but I didn't expect that,'' said Jagr, who had two assists.

After only two periods with Lemieux on the ice, the Penguins barely resembled the team that was 0-6-1 in its previous seven home games.

''I don't think every game is going to be like that -- there are going to be a lot of tough games,'' Jagr said. ''But the way we played tonight, we have a good chance to win.''

Toronto goalie Curtis Joseph said, ''They're a different team, obviously, if anybody doubted that before.''

Penguins goalie Garth Snow made the lead stand up through an uneventful third period.

Lemieux needed less than a minute to signal that it would be the kind of special night fans will talk about for a lifetime. Even Michael Jordan's return to the NBA in 1995 wasn't as remarkable -- Jordan was away from his sport for only 1 1/2 years, and he remained a competitive athlete by playing pro baseball. Lemieux spent much of his retirement buying the Penguins.

If any athlete knows about comebacks, it is Lemieux, who made three previous memorable returns -- from a three-month layoff following back surgery in 1991, from a monthlong layoff for cancer treatment in 1993 and from a one-year medical sabbatical in 1995.

Minutes after his retired No. 66 jersey was pulled down from the Mellon Arena ceiling to signal his return to the sport he long dominated, Lemieux threw the puck from behind the net into the crease. It deflected off Hrdina's skate to Jagr, who stuffed it into the right side of the net while being pulled off his skates by Yushkevich.

Jagr inadvertently dislodged the net, and the play was reviewed by video replay judge Dale Ruth before the goal was allowed, triggering a huge ovation from a standing room only crowd of 17,148 -- more than the listed capacity of 16,958.

''I wanted to get off to a good start and take the pressure off right off the bat,'' Lemieux said between periods.

It was reminiscent of Lemieux's first shift in the NHL in 1984, when he scored on his first shot 78 seconds into his first game.

Lemieux, always one of hockey's best skaters, had no trouble keeping up with the game action. His on-ice awareness was back, too -- when Petr Svoboda tried to bang him into the rear boards, the 6-foot-4, 238-pound Lemieux responded by knocking Svoboda off his skates.

''I was surprised. I thought I was going to be a lot more tired after the first period,'' the 35-year-old Lemieux told ESPN after playing 8:58 of the first period -- he had expected to play 15 minutes all game.

He finished with 20:46 of ice time.

Lemieux took the ice to a thunderous ovation at 7:05 p.m., amid a flurry of flashing cameras. On the streets outside the arena, where a huge spotlight flashed ''Mario 66'' atop the retractable steel roof, scalpers were commanding $750 a seat -- an unprecedented sum for an otherwise routine midseason game.

Capitals 5, Senators 1

KANATA, Ontario -- Peter Bondra scored four goals -- three in the second period -- as Washington beat Ottawa.

Bondra registered his first hat trick in over 14 months -- and 15th career -- when he scored three of Washington's four second-period goals. His 18th goal 5:30 into the third gave him his sixth career four-goal game.

Dmitri Khristich also scored in the second as the Capitals turned around a 1-0 deficit and chased Senators goalie Patrick Lalime. Adam Oates had three assists in the period.

Hurricanes 4, Rangers 3

RALEIGH, N.C. -- Martin Gelinas scored two power-play goals and assisted on Rob DiMaio's winner as Carolina beat New York.

Carolina played for the first time since losing all four games on a road trip that ended Tuesday night in Tampa Bay.

League-leading scorer Theo Fleury had a goal and Petr Nedved added two assists for the Rangers as they erased a 3-0 deficit in the second period.

Devils 2, Blue Jackets 2

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Jason Arnott scored on a power play with 69 seconds left in the third period to give New Jersey a tie with expansion Columbus.

Randy McKay also scored for the Devils, who hit three goal posts in the third before Arnott tallied into an open net.

Columbus goalie Mark Denis, who stopped the first 17 shots of the game and finished with 42 saves, prevented New Jersey from extending its winning streak to four games by stopping six shots in the overtime, including a great chance by Alexander Mogilny in close.

Bruins 5, Islanders 2

UNIONDALE, N.Y. -- Bill Guerin scored two goals to increase his league-leading goal total to 23 and Jason Allison added three assists in Boston's victory over New York.

Joe Thornton, Kyle McLaren and Sergei Samsonov also scored for the Bruins, who got 31 saves from goalie Byron Dafoe.

Bill Muckalt and Dave Scatchard scored for the Islanders, who lost their third straight during a seven-game homestand.

Flyers 5, Panthers 2

SUNRISE, Fla. -- Five players scored goals for Philadelphia in its victory over the Panthers.

Flyers goalie Roman Cechmanek made 31 saves and posted his third straight win. Philadelphia led 3-1 entering the third and put the game away with goals 72 seconds apart by Paul Ranheim and Chris Therien.

Panthers goalie Trevor Kidd allowed five goals on 34 shots as his record fell to 5-12-5. Robert Svehla scored both goals for Florida, which has just one victory in its last 14 games (1-8-3-2).

Wild 5, Red Wings 3

DETROIT -- Scott Pellerin and Sean O'Donnell scored second-period goals and Minnesota held on to defeat Detroit.

An apparent tying goal by Kirk Maltby with nearly three minutes left to play was reviewed and then disallowed, preserving the Wild's victory in their first game at Joe Louis Arena. Officials ruled that Maltby raised his stick higher than the crossbar to deflect a Nicklas Lidstrom shot past Manny Fernandez.

An empty-net goal by Antti Laaksonen with 19 seconds remaining finished off the Red Wings.

Blackhawks 1, Coyotes 1

CHICAGO -- Phoenix's Sean Burke stopped 24 shots and Chicago's Jocelyn Thibault made 18 saves as the Coyotes and Blackhawks skated to a tie.

Chicago's Eric Daze and Phoenix's Shane Doan exchanged goals in the first period, and the tie enabled the Blackhawks to extend their unbeaten streak to a season-high four games (3-0-1). The Coyotes are 2-0-1 in their last three, and are 3-0-3-1 in their last seven.

Stars 3, Mighty Ducks 1

DALLAS -- Shaun Van Allen scored two goals as Dallas extended its winning streak to three games with a victory over Anaheim.

Stars rookie goalie Marty Turco finished with 19 saves, including a spectacular stop on Anaheim's Dan Bylsma with 10:45 left to preserve a 2-1 lead. Jere Lehtinen extended Dallas' lead to 3-1 with 10:09 to play.

Avalanche 3, Oilers 2

DENVER -- Milan Hejduk and Adam Foote scored third-period goals and Ray Bourque had two assists as Colorado beat Edmonton and won for the third time in four games.

Chris Drury got his first goal in seven games and Patrick Roy stopped 18 shots for the Avalanche.

Janne Niinimaa and Daniel Cleary scored for Edmonton, 1-1-1-1 in its last four.

Canucks 3, Canadiens 2

VANCOUVER, British Columbia -- Felix Potvin stopped 20 shots and Markus Naslund scored his 20th goal as Vancouver ended a three-game losing streak.

Vancouver jumped out to a 3-0 lead after two periods on goals by Harold Druken, Naslund and Brendan Morrison, then hung on for the final 7:52 after Brian Savage and Jim Campbell made it a one-goal game.

Potvin improved to 10-13-3 as Vancouver won for just the second time in six games. Jeff Hackett made 29 saves, but fell to 3-7-2.

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