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PHOENIX, Ariz.

Mario Lemieux should skip the Olympics.

The Penguins are engaged in what promises to be a season-long struggle to stay above .500 and clinch their 12th consecutive playoff berth.

Every game, every point, is critical.

This Olympic issue could prove moot, of course, because there is no guarantee Lemieux will be healthy come February. His hip injury is lingering longer than expected. Who knows when he’ll be pain-free?

But even if he is 100 percent healthy, he should skip the Olympics. He cannot afford to risk aggravating his hip or his back or put himself in danger of sustaining a new injury.

The schedule is insane. If Team Canada were to advance to the gold medal game, it would play six high-intensity games in 10 days. The Penguins play three days before Team Canada’s first game and have the first of back-to-back games three days after the gold medal game.

Lemieux cannot afford to sap a single ounce of strength that could otherwise be donated toward the Penguins’ playoff drive.

Playoffs mean money (one round already is factored into the team’s budget). And it’s not just the revenue that comes with each game but the fan-generated momentum that translates into season-ticket sales. Lemieux is keenly aware of that.

This is his franchise, and it is a franchise at a crossroads. Its very existence depends on the establishment of a new arena in a few years. One missed playoff could have long-range consequences.

Lemieux should follow the same line of logic he adopted before the season when asked how many games he’d play.

“Of course, I’d love to play everywhere, but I have to take care of my franchise first and the people who support us,” he said. “That’s the way the system works.”

Again, Lemieux wants to play. Olympic gold is about the only honor he hasn’t achieved. He hasn’t hidden his desire for it.

“I certainly feel the responsibility,” he said in a preseason conference call with NHL media. “I felt it when I went to (Team Canada’s) training camp in Calgary and saw how the fans feel about it – the players, especially – and the whole country.”

Don’t doubt Lemieux’s competitiveness and love for his country, even if some people who cover the sport there always have. It’s going to be a difficult decision.

But that conference call was before the hip injury, before the nagging, post-operative soreness and before the Penguins got off to an 0-4 start. They’ll need Lemieux for as many of those 15 games in January that he can play and for as many of those 24 games in 46 days after the Olympics as he can play.

Maybe this would all be different if Olympic hockey were more than a mere afterthought. But the way the NHL has crammed it into the schedule, why should it be called anything else?

Teams will have, what, two practice days before their first game?

The NHL and NBC will cry big tears if Lemieux doesn’t play. Too bad. His first allegiance is to his franchise. That’s the way the system works.

Joe Starkey covers the Penguins for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.

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