- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 12, 2001

He came back because he missed the game, because he wanted his 4-year-old son to have a chance to watch his daddy play, because he knew the magic hadn't vanished, even after 3 and 1/2 years away from the ice.
But mostly, Mario Lemieux came back for this.
He came back for another shot at the Stanley Cup.
"I know how great a feeling it was when I won it twice," Lemieux said. "It would be a great feeling once again, probably better than the first two times."
He's been the story of the season, not just in Pittsburgh but all across the league. Even after scoring 35 goals and adding 41 assists in 43 games a league-leading 1.77 points a game since emerging from the owner's box Dec. 27, Lemieux can't help but feel he hasn't done anything yet, not with the quest for the Penguins' third Stanley Cup just starting tonight against the Washington Capitals at MCI Center.
"It's something I've been waiting for since I stepped back on the ice," Lemieux said. "My goal is to win the Stanley Cup. It has been since I came back. I'm going to do everything I can to lead this team to the Stanley Cup finals."
With Lemieux at the top of his game, that's exactly what the Penguins believe.
"Good things happen [when he's on the ice]," right winger Jaromir Jagr said. "Like scoring goals. Winning the Cup."
It was obvious at the time of Lemieux's comeback that his magical hands hadn't deserted him since 1997, when he retired because of chronic back problems after overcoming Hodgkin's Disease. His hockey sense also appeared unaffected; the puck continued to follow him around the ice, as it always seemingly had. But his conditioning wasn't there; despite the most rigorous off-ice training of his career he struggled to find his legs. Initially, Lemieux was something of a stationary shooter, albeit a deadly one.
Down the stretch Lemieux re-emerged as a power skater, with a lethal combination of size, strength, speed and reach capable of going through would-be defenders or embarrassing them in one-on-one situations.
"It's been my plan all along to peak for the playoffs," he said.
Lemieux always has, with the highest points-a-game average in the postseason (.787) in NHL history. He was the Penguins' leading scorer during both of their Stanley Cup runs he had 44 points in 1991, 34 the next year. And not a good sign for the Caps Lemieux insisted this week that when it comes to handling the puck, "I feel better than I ever did."
"He really comes to play and take charge in the playoffs," said assistant coach Joe Mullen, who played on both Stanley Cup teams. "He can elevate his game, plus the other people around him.
"It's a sense you get from his intensity come playoff time. You sense it around him you can see it on the ice and the guys just pick up on it."
That includes on defense. Lemieux always has asserted himself at both ends of the ice in the playoffs, preaching defense with as much gusto as he pursues the puck. This season has been no exception. Since the Penguins adopted the left wing lock in late March, Lemieux has been nothing less than maniacal as a two-way player, and the Penguins have been a different team.
"Especially at the end of the game, if we put somebody to work down low, that's something I enjoy doing, and I take a lot of pride in it," Lemieux said. "I play a little bit more defense, think a lot more defense, in the playoffs."
Said former Penguin Rick Tocchet, now with the Philadelphia Flyers: "I know Mario. If they get in a situation where they get a lead, he's a smart enough guy where he's going to tell that team to play the trap. He's done it before. He has playoff savvy. As great as he is on the ice, off the ice he's pretty savvy with hints for the coaches."
That's what makes him one of the greats.
"It's going to be fun to watch, for sure," Penguins goaltender Garth Snow said. "You don't become one of the top players of all time by not showing up for the big games."
Said Penguins defenseman Marc Bergevin: "The thing is, he's already up a notch over the other guys. In the playoffs, he's two notches over. Half the time we look at each other, and we're like, 'Where does that come from?' It's just amazing. I think he's just going to keep amazing us."
This article is based in part on wire service reports.


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