Lemieux makes point defensively, too
It’s one thing to be cheered by your hometown crowd.
It’s quite another to be cheered by your opponent’s crowd, especially just moments after your team won the game.
This is the respect and the adoration Mario Lemieux commands, especially in his native Canada. Fans at the Corel Centre in Ottawa cheered when Lemieux was announced as a starter Wednesday. They cheered again when he scored a third-period goal that squashed any illusions of a Senators comeback. The loudest cheers were at the end, when he was announced as the No. 1 star of the game.
Lemieux had a goal and two assists in the 4-1 win in Ottawa to raise his league-leading point total to 23. He has more assists (17) than anyone else has points. It’s only 10 games into the season, but if Lemieux stays on this pace he’ll have 100 points before 2003 is three weeks old. Providing he stays healthy, of course.
But Lemieux’s skyrocketing offensive numbers don’t tell the entire story of what he’s done with the Penguins (6-2-2) so far this season. Sure, it makes it easier on the rest of the team with Lemieux averaging a couple of points per game. In the last nine games, he has six goals and 17 assists.
His play on one end of the ice alone isn’t why the Penguins have lost just once since the opener, however.
Take, for example, 2 minutes and 12 seconds of Wednesday’s game. That was the amount of time Lemieux was on the ice for the penalty kill. In the second period, Lemieux was the lone forward on a 5-on-3 kill with defensemen Ian Moran and Dick Tarnstrom. It would have been a textbook penalty kill if it were 5-on-4. The fact that it was 5-on-3 for 1:15 made it worthy of a few highlight clips.
Lemieux stayed between the Senators’ two point men, and between his long reach and his ability to read plays, they couldn’t move the puck between them. They could barely move the puck to their men low in the circles. It wasn’t so much like having one player blocking the passing lane up high but rather having one player blocking each passing lane. The Senators not only failed to score, but also failed to mount any real threat.
“You can’t be anything else (but impressed),” Penguins goalie Johan Hedberg said. “He’s, I don’t know. I can’t find words. Great is the word. But he’s better than that. When he’s coming in our zone and they have the play, he just comes in there and takes the puck away. His defensive game is really underrated, I feel as a goaltender. That’s not what he’s known for because of all the production he has up front but he can really play defense too.”
The Senators had their most promising prospect on the ice in Ottawa for the first time since a call-up from the AHL last week. Like many young players, Jason Spezza, the No. 2 pick in 2001, grew up admiring Lemieux.
“Mario was unbelievable,” Spezza told the Ottawa Citizen afterward. “I can only dream of one day being as good as that. He slows the game down; he makes it a different game out there.”
Everyone notices when Lemieux isn’t on the ice, as well. He didn’t come back for the start of the second period Monday against Washington, and it was like someone threw a switch. The Capitals read their chance and perhaps marveled at their good fortune.
The Penguins were too slow to adjust. The Capitals scored on the power play three minutes in, with Peter Bondra firing a slapshot from just inside the blue line.
“The momentum shifted in the second period for whatever reason, but I know the reason why it shifted,” coach Rick Kehoe said after that game.
Then, five minutes and 25 stitches in his split upper lip later, Lemieux came back. Three and a half minutes later he scored on a one-timer into the top corner of the net. That was the game-winning goal in the 3-2 victory.
“He’s a magician out there,” teammate Wayne Primeau said. “He’s the type of guy who, every game he gets two or three points. It’s incredible. But we need that. We need him leading the way and when he does, we’re successful.”
Karen Price is a former freelancer.