Like Mario Lemieux himself, the pain attacks without warning. One minute Lemieux feels fine, the next he can't even bend over to lace up his skates. Yet here he comes again, carrying the Pittsburgh Penguins on his aching back, seeking to recapture the Stanley Cup he first won for them a year ago.
Lemieux played top gun in the first two weeks of the strike-delayed NHL playoffs. He dominated Pittsburgh's seven-game victory over the Washington Capitals in the Patrick Division semifinals, scoring seven goals and assisting on 10 others. He had six points in Game 3, on three goals and three assists, along the way tying the league playoff record for most points in a period, with four. The Penguins, who had trailed 3-1 in games, won three in a row from the Caps to set up a showdown with the first-place, hell-bent-for-silver New York Rangers, who are on their own quest for hockey's Holy Grail.
Pittsburgh, though, wasn't the only team to stage a stirring comeback in what turned out to be a remarkable first round. Two others, the Detroit Red Wings and the Vancouver Canucks, also overcame three-games-to-one deficits. Moreover, six of the eight series were pushed to winner-take-all seventh games. That broke the record for most seventh games in a postseason. The previous mark? Five, set in 1987, over the entire four rounds of action.
Perhaps the drama was highest last Friday night in Montreal, where the Adams Division champion Montreal Canadiens needed two overtimes in Game 7 to dispose of the virtually fanless and mostly talentless Hartford Whalers. In the three games played in Hartford, the Whalers drew an average of only 7,978 spectators. The postseason continued on its wacky way on Saturday and Sunday, when all four home teams—the Canadiens, the Canucks, the Rangers and the Red Wings—lost Game 1 of the divisional finals, thereby relinquishing home-ice advantage. But Lemieux and his breathtaking opening-round performance was still on everyone's mind.
"We were beaten by one man," said Washington coach Terry Murray after Game 7. "The difference? I'm just going to say this once. Number 66. Lemieux. Right now he's the best there is by far."
And although he did not score a goal in the opener of Pittsburgh's series against the Rangers, Lemieux still had two assists to help lift the Penguins to a 4-2 win at Madison Square Garden. "Nobody in the world is playing better right now," said Pittsburgh power forward Kevin Stevens, who, after taking a perfect pass from Lemieux, stuffed the puck into the net for the Penguins' second goal in New York. "He's the guy they have to key on. That opens it up for the rest of us."
If the Rangers hope to break their 51-year Stanley Cup drought, they must figure out a way to stop Lemieux. After Game 1 they didn't have a clue. "Throw a net over him," said New York right wing Mike Gartner. "Better yet, maybe we should shoot him."
Bullets would probably bounce off Lemieux. Super Mario, for whom playing with a chronically bad back has become second nature, has been superhuman ever since he recovered from a late-season shoulder injury. He missed the first game of the Penguins' series against the Caps and was used sparingly in Game 2. After that, he was simply awesome. His game-winning goal on a power play in Game 6, with the score 4-4 late in the second period, defies explanation—but not superlatives. "That was one of the greatest goals I've ever seen," said Stevens.
Even Lemieux, a quiet, intensely private man who won't ever remind anyone of Boom Boom Geoffrion, admitted he was happy. "I saw it on the news when I got home," he said. "It was a great goal."
Lemieux, 26, commands attention every moment he's on the ice. At 6'4", 210 pounds, he towers over most players, and he uses his size, strength and reach to excellent advantage. He skates and stick-handles gracefully, with a long, loping stride, but he can generate dazzling flashes of speed. He materializes in front of the net and deposits his payload like a Stealth bomber, before anyone but the goal judge realizes what's going on.
Although his defense has been criticized ever since he was introduced to Pittsburgh in 1984 as the 18-year-old savior of the Penguins, Lemieux has learned that you don't get to be the top player in the game by merely scoring 85 goals (he did that in 1988-89, his last injury-free season). Last week Pittsburgh coach Scotty Bowman praised Lemieux for working hard in his own end against Washington, and on Sunday night Lemieux even took one for the team, throwing his body in front of a shot by New York's James Patrick during a scramble in front of the net. "That was a first," said Lemieux, smiling somewhat sheepishly.
Lemieux has loosened up a bit. He even permits himself a smile on the bench now and then. The pressure of being a franchise player doesn't seem to affect him as much as it did earlier in his career. Comparisons with the still-great Wayne Gretzky, who led the Edmonton Oilers to four Stanley Cups between 1984 and '88, have become less demeaning of Lemieux now that he has won a championship. He passed Gretzky to win NHL scoring titles in 1987-88 and '88-89, missed too many games because of the injured back and disk surgery to challenge for the scoring crown the next two seasons, and then led the league in scoring again this season, with 131 points in 64 games. The reason Lemieux gave for picking uniform number 66—it's Gretzky's 99 upside down—is rarely brought up anymore.
If Pittsburgh can get by the Rangers, Lemieux will have a good shot at hosting another Stanley Cup victory party for his teammates. At last year's fete the Cup wound up at the bottom of the swimming pool in Lemieux's backyard in Mount Lebanon, Pa. "It had a good time," says Penguin wing Phil Bourque.
A couple of months ago a giddy ending to this longest of seasons in Pittsburgh seemed almost inconceivable. The nightmare began late last summer, when beloved coach Bob Johnson, who had steered the Penguins to the Cup in his only season with them, was found to have cancer. Bowman was named coach before this season began when it became apparent that one of Johnson's brain tumors was inoperable. After Johnson died on Nov. 26, grieving players chafed at working for the demanding Bowman.
By March the Penguins were battling the lowly New York Islanders for the Patrick Division's fourth and final playoff spot. Pittsburgh general manager Craig Patrick held a closed-door meeting with the players. It must have worked, because the Penguins played well down the stretch, going 10-3-1 in their last 14 games, to finish in third place.
Before the regular season drew to a close, there would be a final indignity—the 10-day players' strike. To cheer themselves up during the walkout, Lemieux and goaltender Tom Barrasso headed for Florida to play some golf. "He's good," says Barrasso. "If he could work on his game year-round, he would be a serious player. The guy's got a one handicap."
Barrasso, who's got a four, is planning to take a trip with Lemieux this summer to Scotland, where they'll play some of that country's renowned courses. Their friendly game is quite competitive. "He always plays to win," says Barrasso.
Of course he does. That's the Mario scenario.