Greetings, hockey fans.
Those of us who grew up in Pittsburgh all have our favorite Mario Lemieux memory, right?
For many, the nights he raised the Stanley Cup in 1991 and 1992 will always represent that perfect memory. Others surely will mention Dec. 27, 2000, when he came out of retirement in remarkable fashion, notching a goal and two assists.
There is the “five-goal-five-different-ways” game and so many others.
Me? I’d like to direct you to April 9, 1993. You’re surely familiar with this game because the NHL Network showed replays of it pretty much every day during its top-notch coverage of the lockout. (That’s sarcasm.)
The Penguins beat the Rangers in Madison Square Garden that night, winning their 16th straight game, which set an NHL record. They’d beat the Rangers the following night to win No. 17, a record that stands a generation later.
Yes, the victory was historical. But what truly stands out from that night was Lemieux’s performance. For all of his gifts – and no hockey player ever possessed more gifts – one of Lemieux’s greatest traits was his ability to slow the game to his pace. There has never been anything like it.
Watch Crosby or Malkin, Ovechkin or Stamkos. They’re all wonderful, all future Hall-of-Famers. But there is an almost frantic quality to their play, especially Crosby and Ovechkin. They’re almost always in a hurry, which isn’t a bad thing. It suits them well, in fact.
But the beautiful thing about Mario was that he was never in a hurry. While on the power play, with the puck, he’d often completely ignore the man defending him to direct traffic with his left arm. He would literally slow the game to crawl simply because he could, I guess.
Never was this on greater display than on that night at MSG.
Lemieux had to be tired. After all, he had just missed a couple of months while battling cancer. He endured a series of radiation treatments that badly fatigued him. Still, he returned on March 2 and went on one of the greatest scoring binges of his career, this from a man who specialized in scoring binges. Mario produced 30 goals and 26 assists in the 20 regular season games he played after returning to the lineup. Look at those numbers again.
And remember, his back was not 100 percent during this time. Not even close.
Still, at age 27, his physical gifts remained at their peak. Against the Rangers, he scored five goals and it felt like he could have scored eight or nine, if he so desired. You’ll notice in many of these goals, Lemieux almost looks like he’s playing the game in slow motion. And yet, none of the Rangers could catch him all night. Again, it was an almost superhuman ability that you probably had to witness in person to truly appreciate it.
Please note the third goal of the five. It occurred in the second period after receiving a lead pass from goalie Tom Barrasso, who had incredibly puck handling skills.
Mario was killing a penalty and had been on the ice for an eternity. He was pulled down and no penalty was called. As he would sometimes do, he stayed on the ice for quite some time, staring down the referee. He finally got up, and was about to skate to the bench when he spotted Barrasso with the puck, and went for the breakaway.
He skated in slow motion on the breakaway, obviously out of gas. But it didn’t matter. If you were watching, you knew he was going to score. After being embraced by teammate Ron Francis, Mario raised one arm in the air, still in slow motion. What a visual.
He’d score two more goals, of course, and famously received a standing ovation from the Madison Square Garden crowd after the fifth.
(Side note: I had just turned 13. Earlier that day, my mom gave me an English Bulldog puppy for my birthday. Her name was Sheba, and she was great. So, I was already having pretty much the greatest day ever even before having the privilege of watching this performance.)
Mario was about artistry as much as anything else. He’d do something every game that you’d never seen before. On that night, he made scoring five goals look so easy. And inevitable. And destined.
Wednesday marks the 21-year anniversary of that performance. If you watched it, enjoy it again. If you’re young or new to the sport or young, give it a look. The game has never been played in such a way, and I assure you it will never be played like that ever again.
And yes, I’ve gotten so bored by the final few weeks of this regular season, that I wrote an 800-word blog about a game that took place 21 years ago.
But really, this is footage that never gets old.