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Cook: Lemieux No. 1 as leader, too

Monday, April 30, 2001

Kevin Stevens played with Mario Lemieux in the early 1990s when Lemieux routinely shrugged off Washington tough guys Dale Hunter and Dino Ciccarelli as if they were gnats, embarrassed Boston's great Raymond Bourque, tortured Minnesota's Jon Casey and a lot of other goaltenders, earned two Conn Smythe Trophies as playoff MVP and brought two Stanley Cups to Pittsburgh.

And Stevens says Lemieux is playing better now?

"The best he's ever played," Stevens said yesterday after the Penguins' light workout at Southpointe.

That can't be, can it?

Lemieux might be playing with a greater love for the game. He might be playing with a greater passion for winning now that he knows how precious those Stanley Cups are. But playing better hockey than he did when he had young legs and could beat anyone one-on-one or, in the case of Minnesota defensemen Neil Wilkinson and Shawn Chambers, one-on-two? Better than when he was no worse than the second greatest player in the history of the game?

That's impossible, isn't it?

"He's better now at both ends of the rink," Stevens insisted.

Do you want to quibble with the guy?

What's the point, anyway?

It doesn't matter if Lemieux was a little better in 1991 and 1992. What's important is that he again has become the most dominant force in the playoffs and is the Penguins' best hope of winning the Cup.

No disrespect to Johan Hedberg, of course.

Lemieux's brilliance wasn't so obvious early in the series against the Washington Capitals. He had two goals and two assists as the teams split the first four games. Those would be terrific numbers for just about anyone else, but they were mediocre for him.

"You have to understand the game has changed so much," Stevens said. "He's not going to score 35 or 40 points in the playoffs again. The checking is too good. Washington gave us about 4 inches of space out there.

"What makes Mario so great is that he has changed with the game. He's still going to find a way to win. He's going to do whatever it takes."

Lemieux scored the winning goal against the Capitals in Game 5, then scored the first goal in decisive Game 6 with a sensational individual effort. You don't think the first goal is important this time of year? The Penguins are 6-0 in these playoffs when they score first.

Lemieux was even better in the two victories against the Buffalo Sabres. He was right in the middle of the defining moment of each game.

Early in Game 1, Lemieux beat Sabres goaltender Dominik Hasek with a torrid slap shot to give the Penguins a 1-0 lead. That sent a message to Hasek. You might think you're a god in goal, but you just found out differently. It also sent a message to any of the Penguins who might have been a bit in awe of the Hasek legend. I'm telling you, we can beat this guy. They went on to win, 3-0.

Lemieux sent a much different message to the Sabres in Game 2 after taking a ferocious hit from defenseman Jay McKee in the second period. Is that the best you've got? You had better bring a little more the next time, pal. Lemieux, although temporarily dazed, played well the rest of the way in the 3-1 victory. McKee left the game and is not expected to play in Game 3 tonight at Mellon Arena.

"It looked like he got mad after that hit," Penguins defenseman Marc Bergevin said of Lemieux. "Not mad at anybody in particular. Just mad, period. It was like he said, 'I'm going to do even more now.'

"Sure, everyone on the bench saw it. How can you not notice when your best player takes a hit like that and keeps going hard? When you see him out there getting his nose dirty, there's no way you can take the easy way out. You couldn't look in the mirror if you did."

As a leader, Lemieux definitely is better than ever. "Every second, he breathes winning, winning, winning," Stevens said.

Forget that Jaromir Jagr wears the Penguins' "C." He's a marvelous talent, but he's no leader. It's Lemieux who has rallied the Penguins. "I've never been around anyone like him ... I think we all want to win for him as much as we do for ourselves," said defenseman Andrew Ference.

It's Lemieux who has convinced the team it has to play defense in front of goaltender Johan Hedberg to have a chance.

Remember what Stevens said about Lemieux changing with the game?

"I look up and Mario is deep in our end, hitting someone, taking the puck away, going the other way with it," Ference said. "It's amazing the different things he does to help you win."

"He's our best defensive player by far," Stevens said. "The way he kills penalties, uses his stick ... People don't appreciate how good he is with the stick, knocking down pucks, breaking up passes. He's definitely in a class by himself."

Stevens expects as much. He saw all of it before from Lemieux during those Cup years nearly a decade ago. But for a rookie such as Ference, who has been one of the Penguins' surprising stars? Just say Lemieux's playoff performance has been a revelation.

"I always heard people say he was the best player in the world," Ference said. "Now I know why."

Ron Cook can be reached at rcook@post-gazette.com.

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