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Penguins Mario records one goal, three assists in 6:02 span of third period to lead comeback

Tuesday, December 24, 2002

By Dave Molinari, Post-Gazette Sports Writer

Listen to Mario Lemieux, and you get might get the impression that what he did during the third period of the Penguins' 5-2 victory against Buffalo at Mellon Arena last night is covered by the Standard Player's Contract.

Mario Lemieux celebrates with linemates Alexei Kovalev and Martin Straka after scoring directly off a faceoff to break a 2-2 tie in the third period last night. (Annie O'Neill, Post-Gazette)

That scoring one goal and setting up three others in a span of six minutes, two seconds is simply a facet of every prominent player's job description. Or, at the very least, that it should be.

"It's our job, the top guys, to go out when the team is down and try to lift the team," Lemieux said.

Lifting a team when it is losing, 2-1, at home is one thing. What Lemieux did is quite another.

By any standard. For any player.

The game last night was Lemieux's 845th in the NHL. What he did during the final 20 minutes, when he put up four points in a period for the 21st time in his career, rivals just about anything he pulled off during the previous 844.

"It's up there," Penguins Coach Rick Kehoe said.

Awfully high. On an awfully short list of his finest career performances.

 
 
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Send the tape of that 362-second sequence to the Hall of Fame, and no one ever will wonder why officials there waived the standard three-year waiting period when he retired in 1997.

From 11:09, when he set up Alexei Kovalev for the tying goal, until 17:11, when he fed Martin Straka for a final bit of insurance, Lemieux molded the outcome the way no single player should be able to.

"Mario took over," left winger Steve McKenna said, "and the rest was history."

Well, the Sabres were, anyway.

The Penguins, conversely, won for the first time this season when trailing after two periods and raised their record to 13-14-3-4. And, in the process, gave themselves a badly needed infusion of confidence.

"The last few weeks have been tough on the team's confidence," Lemieux said. "But winning games like that certainly is going to help in the future."

Until Lemieux and his linemates -- whom Kehoe had reunited after the second intermission -- took over the game in the middle of the third, the Penguins seemed to be headed for a defeat that would have sat in their stomachs like rancid eggnog.

Today. Tomorrow. And for every day that passed until they found out whether the two points they were about to donate to Buffalo at Mellon Arena would cost them a spot in the Eastern Conference playoffs.

But Lemieux revived the Penguins when, after carrying the puck down the left side, he faked Sabres defenseman Jay McKee off his skates in the left circle, then slid a cross-ice pass to Kovalev, who rapped it past Buffalo goalie Mika Noronen at 11:09 to make it 2-2.

Kovalev had the right side of the net to shoot at, and probably had a better chance of hitting teammate Ville Nieminen than Noronen.

"Nieminen made the play, actually, going to the net and opening Kovalev on the right side," Lemieux said.

There was no one to share the credit with on the next goal, however, because no one else touched the puck.

At 13:10, Lemieux cleanly beat Sabres center Chris Gratton -- who is winning about 58 percent of his faceoffs for the season -- on a draw in the right circle, knocking the puck between Noronen's legs for what proved to be the winner.

"I've tried it a lot over the years," Lemieux said.

Sabres Coach Lindy Ruff called it "a bit of Mario magic," but the reality is that Lemieux's success rate when trying to score directly off a faceoff now stands at 1 for ever.

That, however, wasn't his only burst of faceoff brilliance. With the Penguins up, 4-2 -- thanks to a Kovalev goal at 16:02 made possible when Lemieux got his stick on a pass by Buffalo's Henrik Tallinder, deflecting the puck to Straka -- Lemieux put the game away with another flash of individual excellence.

Facing Sabres center Stu Barnes in the right circle -- the same one where he had victimized Gratton -- he put the puck between Barnes' legs, then reached around him to throw a pass into the slot to Straka, who lifted it past Noronen at 17:11 for the Penguins' final goal.

The third-period linescore for Lemieux, Straka and Kovalev: Four goals, four assists.

"It's pretty amazing to watch these guys when they're on their game," Penguins goalie Johan Hedberg said.

For the first 49-plus minutes -- while the Sabres built and protected a 2-1 lead -Kehoe was a bumbling fool who deserved to have his job security measured in minutes.

By the time Lemieux's line had finished its rampage, the Penguins had a three-goal advantage, and Kehoe had been transformed into a near-genius and serious contender for the Jack Adams Award.

Funny how the finest coaches always have the players who perform best.

Kehoe said he decided to put Kovalev back with Lemieux and Straka because "we were in a situation where we had to go for it," although he would not commit to keeping that unit together when the Penguins visit the New York Rangers Thursday. And Lemieux didn't disagree with that thinking.

"Depending on who we play against and what the lineup is on the other side, sometimes it's good to split Kovy and me," he said. "But when we're behind in the third, I think [Kehoe] is going to do the same thing next time."

Kehoe can only hope that, the next time that situation arises, Lemieux will respond the way he did last night. The way only he can.

"The most fun part of this game is sitting on the bench watching him," McKenna said. "We're professionals -- we play in the NHL -- but we see that, and we look at each other, and laugh and shake our heads."


Dave Molinari can be reached at 412-263-1144.

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