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Lemieux rejuvenates Pens

His return from retirement has brought profits - and the playoffs - back to Pittsburgh.


© St. Petersburg Times, published May 12, 2001

His return from retirement has brought profits -- and the playoffs -- back to Pittsburgh.

There are so many ways to measure Mario Lemieux's impact on the Penguins, it's tough finding a place to begin.

The most obvious: the standings. Pittsburgh was a lifeless middle-of-the pack product before Lemieux laced up the skates on Dec. 27.

Now, if the Penguins can get past the Devils in the Eastern Conference final, which start today at the Continental Airlines Arena in New Jersey, they will be in the Stanley Cup final for the first time since 1992, when Lemieux led them to a second straight title.

"I could play for nothing to have a chance to win the Stanley Cup," Lemieux said during a conference call. "That's why we've played the game since we were little boys, to have a chance to play for the Cup."

But to really appreciate what Lemieux has done in Pittsburgh, one must look past the goal line to the bottom line.

The Penguins were in federal bankruptcy court on Sept. 3, 1999, when Lemieux bought the team and his reorganization plan was approved.

With their advancement to the third round of the playoffs, which means at least two more sold-out dates at Mellon Arena, Lemieux told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette the team will "probably make two or three million (dollars)."

Tom Rooney, the Penguins chief operating officer, has estimated Lemieux's resurrected career has meant an additional $3.5-million for the franchise.

But back to the ice.

Though his 14 playoff points are tied for the league lead with Colorado's Peter Forsberg, Lemieux was held to one goal in the first five games of the Eastern Conference semifinals against the Sabres. In Game 6, he scored what may be the biggest goal of Pittsburgh's season.

With the Penguins 1:33 from elimination, Lemieux took advantage of what Post-Gazette columnist Bob Smizik called the "immaculate deflection" and whacked the puck past goaltender Dominik Hasek to send the game into overtime tied at 2. Martin Straka's winner extended the series.

"I guess he saved the team off the ice," Buffalo's Rhett Warriner said after the game. "I guess you could say he saved the team again tonight."

Lemieux, 35, is one of three finalists for the Hart Memorial Trophy as the league MVP despite playing 43 games.

His 76 points (35 goals, 41 assists) worked out to a league-high average of 1.8. He also was second among forwards with an average 24:20 of ice time.

Lemieux said that is right where he wants to be.

"I think it's about right, 25 minutes," he said. "That's what I was at 28, 29 years old when I could play 30 to 35 minutes a game. Depends on how the game is going, how many penalties I have to kill and be on the power play. But I think 25 is about right."

As for his physical condition, Lemieux is more than satisfied, though he has suffered the expected bumps and bruises.

Game 6 against the Sabres was rough as Lemieux dealt with a headache, a stick to the face and two on-ice visits from trainer Mark Mortland.

"It is a two-month marathon and very taxing on your body and your mind," Lemieux said of the Stanley Cup playoffs. "It is, I feel, the toughest trophy to win in all of sports. You have to play four series and every night is very taxing on your body. But my legs are still feeling good. My back has been feeling the best probably in the last 15 years. So far, so good."

Lemieux's comeback has done more than spark renewed team interest in Pittsburgh. Apparently, with the Maple Leafs, Senators, Oilers and Canucks out of the playoffs, the Penguins, and the Montreal-bred Lemieux, are the favorites north of the border.

"My parents live up there and I still have a lot of friends in Montreal," he said. "Every time I call, my mom tells me how it is in the papers over there and how people stop them on the street and are supportive of the Penguins and myself. It's great to see."

But there is a special feeling in Pittsburgh. As Smizik wrote: "It all has a familiar ring. The Penguins, led by Mario Lemieux, are alive in the playoffs."

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