- The Washington Times - Friday, April 13, 2001

Mario Lemieux elbowed Jeff Halpern in the face near the end of his opening shift. No call was made against Lemieux. No call is ever made against Lemieux. He is Mario. He does what he wants. If he wants to beat you over the head with his stick, he is granted a permission slip from the NHL office.

The four guys in stripes usually are blind around Lemieux. They believe in his power. They think he is perfect.

The Caps can't be content to beat the Penguins. They can do that. But that is not enough. They have to beat Mario. They have to beat the four guys in stripes. They have to beat an aura, a mindset, the league-wide sentiment that favors the Penguins.

Lemieux is the NHL at the moment. He is the superstar player of the Penguins, their owner, too, and essential to the postseason television ratings.

He is looking to secure a third Stanley Cup, and the Caps are in the way, if only momentarily. This is too bad for the Caps. They seem to play the Penguins every spring, and it always seems to end the same, with earlier tee times than originally planned. Isn't this the way it was between the Caps and Islanders in the '80s?

What can you do?

This is Lemieux's time. This is his comeback season. He knows people. All he has to do is make a telephone call. He and MJ, they are buddies of sorts. They have that transcendent thing in common.

Mario to MJ: You da man.

MJ to Mario: No, you da man.

Whenever someone skates within 10 yards of Lemieux, he falls down and tries to get a penalty.

He tried that in the first period. He fell to the ice and grabbed his side, as if he had been hit with a baseball bat. Lemieux is a pretty good actor. Between periods, you expected him to say, "You like me. You really like me."

And people do like him. Even men want to have his babies.

Coach Ron Wilson and the Caps have been ordered to be polite around Lemieux. They make their line changes only after he has given them the go-ahead. If someone with the Caps is going after the puck, the person checks with Lemieux first to see if he has an interest in it.

You sometimes wonder what players say to one another on the ice.

Now you know.

They say, "Mario, may I?"

No one wants to offend Lemieux, especially the four guys in stripes. Anyone can miss a call. To keep missing calls when it involves the same player is suspicious.

Lemieux committed the roughing penalty, and teammate Kevin Stevens served the two minutes in the penalty box early in the first period.

Despite his off-the-charts charisma, Lemieux looks better on the ice than he does in a penalty box. He goes to the penalty box, and people start going to the rest room.

Lemieux beat on Brendan Witt near the end of the first period. Lemieux hit Witt with a chair, Jerry Springer-like, and then he put him in a scissors lock and gave him a noogie. Witt, of course, received two minutes for roughing, possibly because he invaded Lemieux's air space.

Lemieux is not a fighter, really. He is just another French Canadian who is stuck in North America. Or is North America stuck with Quebec?

Well, whatever the case, French is Lemieux's first language, and no one holds that against him, the same as no one holds Jerry Lewis against the French.

Coincidentally, Mario Lemieux is French for Shane Battier, another favorite of the striped-shirt set.

All this makes it tough for Wilson and the Caps. They have to beat Lemieux four times, not just once or twice, to advance to the next round.

This is not part of the script, let's be honest. Even if Lemieux were playing in a wheelchair, he still would command a wide berth and mass attention. He has it, that thing they do, and it is his world. One game either way does not matter.

The Caps have to be almost perfect. Lemieux just has to be himself, which already is plenty good, without any help.

Late in the second period, Lemieux knocked down Steve Konowalchuk again. It went undetected. No call. No whistle. No nothing.

Get used to it.

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