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Toned-up Lemieux ready for debut

His body fat, once measured in the 20’s, now registers at a measly 9 percent.

His weight is down 12 pounds from last season, to a well-distributed 230. His shoulders are thicker, his legs quicker.

Mario Lemieux, the 2003-04 model, is ready for action – and he will make his preseason debut tonight at Mellon Arena against the Columbus Blue Jackets.

“This guy is phenomenal right now, just solid as a rock,” said Tom Plasko, Lemieux’s long-time trainer and massage therapist. “He’s about 200 percent better than I’ve seen him in the past two years. That’s how much stronger he is. Conditioning-wise, you can’t even compare.

“He’s in the best shape I’ve ever seen him.”

Players familiar with Lemieux know he is feeling good when they see a hop in his stride coming out of a turn.

Well, he’s been hopping like a kangaroo.

“The way he skates out there is mind-boggling,” defenseman Marc Bergevin said.

Two years ago, Lemieux sustained a season-ruining hip injury in a preseason game. Last year, he did not play in one.

This year, he said, “It’s not a must, but it’s nice to get your feet wet and get in there and see how it feels again. It should be fun.”

Penguins strength and conditioning coach John Welday started working for the team five years into Lemieux’s career and, like Plasko, has witnessed a remarkable transformation in his workout habits and body composition.

Welday said Lemieux’s scores on conditioning tests have improved each of the past three years.

“Three years ago, he really started hitting the weights,” Welday said. “He worked on his arms and chest and now his shoulders. He’s never had development of his shoulders like he has now.”

Welday said that most players have a body fat percentage of 10 or less, but …

“It’s one thing for a 20-year-old to be at 8 or 9 percent, it’s another for a 37-year-old.”

Lemieux turns 38 on Oct. 5, five days before the season opener against the Los Angeles Kings. His newfound passion for conditioning has given him hope that he can play well beyond this season.

Bergevin, incredibly well-toned at 38, had some advice for his good friend when Lemieux started hitting the weights.

“I told him never to lift to heavy,” Bergevin said. “Do less weight and more reps. And I tried to tell him, ‘Don’t smoke and lift weights at the same time.’ Just kidding.”

Lemieux will come out smoking tonight, playing left wing on a line with center Martin Straka and right winger Konstantin Koltsov. They have had three full practices together. Lemieux reiterated yesterday that he likes having so much speed on his line.

Playing the wing will allow Lemieux to conserve energy, rather than spending his time chasing the puck low in the offensive and defensive zones. Head coach Eddie Olczyk figures Koltsov can be the “puck pursuer” on Lemieux’s line.

Olczyk said that several players, including Aleksey Morozov, will get a chance with Lemieux tonight.

“Everybody’s pretty excited,” Olczyk said. “(Lemieux) feels really good. From day one, I think I’ve used the word ‘powerful’ quite a bit, the way he’s skating and how much respect he commands.”

Olczyk plans to play Lemieux on a regular shift – the Penguins will roll four lines – and, of course, on the power play.

“It will be how he feels,” Olczyk said. “I’ll just kind of play along.”


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