On May 10 in Buffalo, Mario Lemieux had a smile on his face, and there was more to it than just eliminating the Sabres in the second round of the playoffs. It meant the Pittsburgh Penguins would have at least two home gates in the third round two more big paydays.
“We just made budget,” he proclaimed, and with that statement his urgency to win, to play for another day, appeared to wane. It was as if he had put out a signal to his teammates that it was OK to relax now, that the pressing business of paying the bills had been accomplished, that winning no longer mattered or at least not as much.
Pittsburgh didn’t surrender against the New Jersey Devils, but it was a thoroughly soft performance. Of the 300 minutes of hockey over five games, the Penguins led for just 24:05. It could be safely argued that they didn’t even dominate the action for that long in the series.
“His golf game just has to be better than his hockey this spring,” columnist Ron Cook wrote of Lemieux yesterday in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Of Jaromir Jagr’s contribution to the Penguins’ effort, Cook wrote, “It was a disgrace.”
The real disgrace was the blatant display of the NHL’s double standard the rules that separate Lemieux and only a few others from the foot soldiers. John Madden, a checker on New Jersey’s fourth line, embarrassed the Penguins’ owner with a trick out of the grade-school rinks, calling out Lemieux’s nickname with time running out. The center fell for it and passed the puck to the Devils.
“When I looked back, he had the puck, he dumped it back out, and he had a little smirk on his face,” Lemieux told reporters after the game. It was the smirk that did it; not only did the fourth-line center embarrass him, he scored the insurance goal that eventually ended the series.
Lemieux chased Madden and slashed him. Madden pretended he didn’t notice. Lemieux continued the chase and slashed his opponent again. Madden refused to give him the satisfaction of acknowledging the infraction. Lemieux went after him again, this time delivering a hard cross-check across the top of the back that flattened Madden. Finally, with 60 seconds left in Lemieux’s season, he was given a two-minute minor.
If it had been some enforcer chasing and assaulting Lemieux in that manner, his bail hearing would still be going on.
Lemieux averaged 23 minutes a game in the Devils series but had only seven shots, no goals and three assists. He had only one goal in his final 11 playoff games, the miracle in the 58th minute that sent Game 6 against Buffalo into overtime. He was used at center, at left wing; with Jagr, without Jagr. It made no difference, the Devils found him and prevented him from doing what he has done to so many other teams.
Pittsburgh was outcoached from the start, but then again, Larry Robinson had the right personnel to get the job done. He had the proper players to roll four lines, all four getting enough ice time to keep the top lines rested. That was a luxury Pittsburgh did not have, and no matter who was running the bench coach Ivan Hlinka, Lemieux or Jagr or some combination therein there was no escaping the hounding. The Devils came at Pittsburgh like people possessed, relentless in their attack.
Perhaps that was it. New Jersey was going for revenge, trying to pay back the Penguins for what they felt was a terrible injustice fostered on the team at the end of the 1983-84 season when the whole hockey world knew of a wonderful youngster skating around the Province of Quebec, piling up statistics that entire teams were incapable of collecting. Surely, this youngster would be the savior of this team stuck in a swamp beside the New Jersey Turnpike.
The Devils and Penguins were horrible that season, and one of them would claim the prize Mario Lemieux. To this day, old-time New Jersey loyalists swear the Penguins tanked enough games at the end of the season to guarantee a last-place finish and the first pick in the draft.
Paybacks are usually worth the wait.