Silently, Serenely, Mario Lemieux comes to kill you.
He arrives as if from nowhere, a towering apparition, looming 6'7" above the ice in his three-inch-high skates. He shoots with deadly accuracy and passes with precision. His reach is simply superhuman, and he has an uncanny knack for deception. He'll hold his fire till the very last moment and then whip the puck toward the net from the oddest of angles.
Goalies know how dangerous this assassin can be. For the past eight-plus NHL seasons they've seen Lemieux, in person or on TV, develop his skills. They've watched him get off to a stunning start for the Pittsburgh Penguins this year, scoring 21 goals and assisting on 24 others in his first 16 games, a 110-goal, 236-point pace that would eradicate two of Wayne Gretzky's most significant records. And there doesn't seem to be anything anyone can do to stop him.
"You never have any idea what to expect," says Dominic Roussel of the Philadelphia Flyers, who gave up a goal to Lemieux in the season opener. "His face is so calm. He shows no sign of stress or anything. A lot of goaltenders get nervous when he's coming at them with that face. It's as if he's saying, No problem. Relax. I'm just going to beat you now. It's not going to hurt a bit.
"That's what shakes a lot of goaltenders. If he knows he's going to beat you for sure, it's easy to decide he's right."
On breakaways he usually is. "Most of the time when you see him coming, you might as well bend over and kiss your ass goodbye," says Tampa Bay Lightning goalie Wendell Young with a laugh. A former Penguin who went south in the expansion draft, Young was victimized twice by his old friend in a 5-4 Pittsburgh defeat of Tampa Bay on Nov. 1.
"Mario is the only guy in the league who, when he has a breakaway—even when there's a guy chasing him—you pretty much know you're going to have to make a great save," says Scan Burke of the Hartford Whalers. "He kind of attacks you. This big, menacing figure is in front of you before you know it, and you have a split second to make the play. Last time, I tried coming out and poke-checking him. I missed. He didn't."
Says the Detroit Red Wings' Tim Cheveldae, still smarting from the three goals Lemieux scored against him in a 9-6 Penguin victory on Oct. 22, "They ought to add another 6 to his uniform. Then he can wear number 666, like the Antichrist. That's what he is. He's the Antichrist."
Lemieux's deadpan expression dissolves into a beatific smile when he's told of all the kvetching. "I have no sympathy for goalies," he says. "No sympathy at all. My job is to go out there and score goals, and their job is to try and stop me."
It's a mild display of bravado, but it's the closest the 27-year-old Lemieux comes to acknowledging the obvious: He is the Great One now. If he can avoid a recurrence of the back trouble that limited him to 64 games last year, the single-season scoring records Gretzky established for goals (92 in 1981-82) and points (215 in '85-86) could be history. "The media make a big thing out of that, not me," says Lemieux. "Maybe I have a shot at it."
"That's classic Mario," says Young. "He'll never play it up and come out and say he wants it. But you know he wants it."
Lemieux scored in each of the Penguins' first 12 games. He had Harry (Punch) Broadbent in his sights. Broadbent, you'll surely recall, set the NHL record with a 16-game goal-scoring streak for the original Ottawa Senators in 1921-22. Lemieux embellished his bid for that mark with five outings in which he had two goals or more. He beat goalies good and bad; in one three-game stretch he faced the Montreal Canadiens' superb Patrick Roy twice, scoring two goals and adding three assists, and nearly turned the Buffalo Sabres' so-so Daren Puppa back into a larva by scoring with a slap shot.
Roy, a three-time winner of the Vezina Trophy, could only shake his head, a common affectation among goalies suffering from post-Mario stress disorder. "Usually, when you play a team, you want to focus on one line," Roy says. "Pittsburgh is the only team where you have to focus on one player. When he's coming toward you, all you see is him. Of course, after he makes a great pass, you have to worry about all the great players around him."
Nothing lasts forever, except possibly the record set by Broadbent. On Nov. 3, at Pittsburgh's Civic Arena, Lemieux's consecutive-game goal streak ended when he couldn't solve Mark Fitzpatrick of the New York Islanders, who stopped six of his shots. And even though the Penguins won the game 2-0, the atmosphere was somber in the Pittsburgh dressing room. "We really wanted him to get that record," said Lemieux's linemate Kevin Stevens. "He's done just about everything else in hockey. It would have been nice."
"When you get that close to a record that has been around for 70 years but you don't get it," said Lemieux, "you're naturally very disappointed."
In the second game of the season Lemieux had scored twice on Fitzpatrick. "He'll come down and throw three or four fakes at me, and often I'm not sure if he's going to go north, south, east or west," Fitzpatrick says. "The only thing I can do is try to stay with the puck. Somewhere between the fakes and dekes is where a goalie gets in trouble. You have to totally focus on the puck and not worry about what he's doing. If you can do that, the odds are best. But even then the odds are not in your favor."
The odds were not with the discordant St. Louis Blues on Nov. 5, when the Penguins routed them 8-4 behind Lemieux's goal and three assists. "He was a tower of confidence out there," said St. Louis goalie Guy Hebert. "It was a terrible sight to see. If you give him an inch, he'll put it in the net. I thought he was going to shoot glove-high, so I was guarding against that, and instead he put it right through the five-hole [between the pads]."
Last Saturday night in Toronto, Lemieux beat Felix Potvin with a slap shot from the slot three minutes into the game. He has been pulling up and shooting with greater frequency this year, which is both another way to keep the goalies guessing and another indication that his back is feeling better. As Young points out, in 1988, when Lemieux scored a career-high 199 points and before his back problems, he used the slap shot quite a bit.
That shot on Saturday night turned out to be the only one Lemieux would take against the Leafs, who trumped the Penguins 4-2. Potvin, a 21-year-old rookie from Lemieux's native Quebec, could hardly contain himself afterward, as he jammed a pinch of snuff between his cheek and gum. "He was my idol." Potvin said. "I always heard about him, growing up. but I tried my best not to think about him before this game. Then he scored on the first shot. I don't know if that was good or bad. I just know we won."
Still, at week's end the Penguins were 11-3-2, a far cry from a year ago, when they had to overcome a sluggish start to win their second consecutive Stanley Cup. Goalie Tom Barrasso has been in playoff form, his 10-0-2 start surpassing the 11-game team-record unbeaten streak set by Michel Plasse in 1976. Barrasso, whose streak was broken by the Chicago Blackhawks in a 7-2 loss on Sunday, also has a distinct advantage over his peers—he hasn't had to face Lemieux since 1988, when the Sabres traded him to Pittsburgh.
"It was always a slightly intimidating feeling to play against him," says Barrasso. "You know that he's more aware of his options than 99.9 percent of the people in the game. He takes away your ability to anticipate the play because of the way he can look in one direction and snap off a shot or a pass in another direction."
Peter Sidorkiewicz of the Ottawa Senators was ripped for two goals by Lemieux in a 7-2 loss on Oct. 27. He considers himself lucky that it wasn't worse. "There's no book on Mario," Sidorkiewicz says. "It's not like he has a favorite thing that he does over and over. Every time it's a different adventure. And you know that if he does the things that he wants to do, the puck's going to go in the net. He's the most dangerous man I've ever faced."
"On the power play he's even more dangerous," says the New Jersey Devils' Craig Billington, who watched helplessly as Lemieux scored just such a goal in a 4-3 loss to the Penguins on Oct. 24. "Then they have time to set up a play. He'll either bury it, like he did to mc, or pass it at the last split second to a guy who'll have an open net."
Opposing teams even have to be on the defensive during their own power plays when Lemieux is on the ice. I He's proficient at sneaking behind attackers and snagging the puck for a shorthanded breakaway. When that happens, as Sidorkiewicz says, "you just have to hope his back goes out or pray that the puck starts bouncing or that he makes a mistake—and dun doesn't happen very often."
Goalies often contend that players come charging at them so fast, they hardly have time to figure out who's who. But when it's Lemieux, they know all too well. "As soon as he gets the puck," says Burke, "you think to yourself, It's him, he's got it, and he's coming to get ya."
"I always see him when he's on the ice," says Roussel. "You know it's him because of the way he skates and the special charisma he has. And you definitely know it's him when he gets close. The closer he gets, the stronger he becomes. Some goalies get really nervous."
Lemieux says he's not aware of his victims' fear. "I don't look at their eyes," he says. "I look at where I have to put the puck—in the net."
That's even scarier.
"You know you can't stop him," says Cheveldae. "You just hope to contain him. He'll do anything to keep you off balance. And you know what? It works."
None of the goalies has confessed that Lemieux haunts his dreams. The nightmare, they all insist, begins only when they're awake.