The greatest show on earth played Madison Square Garden twice last Friday, and only once was it the circus. The afternoon may have belonged to the jugglers and the clowns, but the night belonged to Mario Lemieux and the Pittsburgh Penguins.
By the time Lemieux had scored his fifth goal of the game—tying a career high—in a 10-4 rout of the New York Rangers, the Garden air was full of history and the rafters were ringing with cheers. Even the most partisan Ranger fans had to take the bags off their heads and appreciate what Lemieux and the Penguins had done, not only that night but over the last month as well.
The blowout of the Rangers gave Pittsburgh its 16th straight victory, breaking the NHL record for consecutive wins established by the 1981-82 New York Islanders. The Penguins extended the streak to 17 with a 4-2 defeat of the Rangers the following night in Pittsburgh. "We'd like to keep it going," said Penguin center Ron Francis after last Saturday's game, "and put the record out of reach."
For the 27-year-old Lemieux, the streak has represented a triumph of body and will. By all rights his season should have been finished in early January when doctors discovered that a lump on his neck was the first stage of Hodgkin's disease. He missed 23 games while undergoing radiation treatments, which left him looking like the victim of a bad sunburn and feeling as if he had been run over by a truck. Lemieux returned to the lineup on March 2, a month ahead of schedule.
During the 17 wins, the first of which occurred on March 9, Lemieux scored 27 goals and assisted on 24 others. That gave him 157 points through last weekend, which means that with only one game remaining in the regular season, he has all but wrapped up his fourth scoring title.
While Lemieux was sidelined, Buffalo Sabre center Pat LaFontaine had come from 33 points behind to take a 12-point lead in the league scoring race. "I thought about it even during radiation," says Lemieux quietly. "I was determined to come back and regain the lead."
LaFontaine, who had 145 points at week's end, never really had a prayer. "I grew up watching Bobby Orr," says Pittsburgh power forward Kevin Stevens. "And Wayne Gretzky was phenomenal. But Mario is on another level."
Remarkably, the cancer has made Lemieux greater than the sum of his parts. After being viewed for years as a major figure in a minor sport, Lemieux now transcends hockey. He's being recognized as the world's dominant pro athlete.
And the Penguins may be the world's dominant pro team. With the start of the NHL playoffs this weekend they will begin their quest for their third straight Stanley Cup. Like the Islanders of Mike Bossy, Bryan Trottier, Denis Potvin and Billy Smith, who won four consecutive Cups between 1980 and '83, the Penguins of Lemieux, Stevens, Ulf Samuelsson and Tom Barrasso can intimidate opponents merely by showing up. "Certainly we're not satisfied with just winning the games," says Lemieux. "We've been playing some pretty good hockey, but we think we can play much better."
It's hard to imagine how. In Friday's history-making game against the Rangers, Pittsburgh, which is assured of finishing the regular season with the league's best record, was as overwhelming as it ever was in either of its championship seasons. For example, during a five-minute New York power play in the second period, the only shot by either team came from Lemieux, who scored a shorthanded breakaway goal. That effectively killed both the penalty and the Rangers. "They're an explosive team," says New York goalie Mike Richter, who replaced Corey Hirsch to start the third period and was victimized for five goals. "They take advantage of any mistake."
Like Lemieux, the Penguins are seeing their legend grow. They won both their Stanley Cups after having struggled in the regular season, thereby earning a reputation for being a team that could throttle up at will. This season they've kept the hammer down. "We're in high gear," says forward Rick Tocchet, an important pickup late last season who has become a leader in the dressing room. "We're ready for the playoffs. And we know that anything less than the Stanley Cup is going to be a failure."
The talkative Tocchet is momentarily struck dumb when he's asked if the Penguins, who ended last year's playoffs with a record-tying 11 consecutive postseason victories, are peaking too soon. "Who's peaking?" he says after a long pause. "If you think this team is peaking, you're wrong."
By the middle of June there will be blood on the ice and beer in the Cup. The Penguins can already smell both. Says defenseman Peter Taglianetti, who was reacquired from the expansion Tampa Bay Lightning last month, "We're out to prove that this is the best team the league has seen in a long, long time."
Lemieux says that he's still drained and sore from the radiation therapy, but the only outward sign of his mortality is a half-moon-shaped bald patch on the back of his head. And you only notice that when he takes off his helmet. In full gear he's Super Mario, number 66, the greatest show on earth.