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Penguins Lemieux a bet to convert some magic

Tuesday, December 24, 2002

By Dejan Kovacevic, Post-Gazette Sports Writer

The shout was loud enough to be heard across the Penguins' locker room.

"Where's my money?"

Then once more ...

"Hey, where's my money?"

Mario Lemieux sets up Alexei Kovalev for one of the Penguins' four third-period goals. (Annie O'Neill, Post-Gazette)

Mario Lemieux wanted a piece of WEAE-AM talk-show host Mark Madden from the moment he scored the decisive goal in the 5-2 victory against the Buffalo Sabres last night at Mellon Arena.

The tale began two years ago, when Lemieux heard Madden taking jabs at him on the air for repeatedly trying to score directly off faceoffs, something which almost never occurs in the NHL.

"He was still trying it all the time, so I made fun of it and told him it was the one thing he can't do," Madden recalled. "So, he told me after a game, 'You don't think I can do it, huh?' I told him, 'I'll bet you 66 bucks.' He said, 'That's kind of cheap. How about $6,600?' I told him OK, that I'd give his charity that much if he could score off a draw."

Flash forward to the third period last night.

The Penguins were tied with the last-place Sabres, 2-2, and looking very much a threat to squander two points they desperately need. Lemieux lined up in the right circle of the Buffalo zone against Chris Gratton. Lemieux had lost all eight of his faceoffs through two periods, and Gratton is one of the league's best on the draw.

Lemieux thought about shooting because Gratton is left-handed.

"For some reason, it's easier for me against a lefty," he said. "Against a righty, it's tough because of the position of the stick."

Linesman Derek Amell dropped the puck, and Lemieux whacked it forward just as it hit the ice. It zipped between Gratton's legs, nicked off the skate of defenseman Alexei Zhitnik and bounced between the legs of goaltender Mika Noronen.

Lemieux, never having budged from the dot, raised both arms and turned to grin in the direction of the press box, where he knew Madden was watching.

"Yeah, that was for you," he said afterward, still grinning.

His teammates were stunned.

"Never seen anything like that," goaltender Johan Hedberg said.

"He's amazing," rookie left winger Michal Sivek said. "How can you do that?"

Buffalo Coach Lindy Ruff might have summed it up best: "I think it was a bit of Mario magic."

Lemieux had tried the shot again and again in his career, but with no success. The closest he came might have been Saturday, in the 2-0 shutout of the Calgary Flames, but the puck clanged off the right pipe behind goaltender Roman Turek. After the game, Lemieux feigned a heart attack to tease Madden in guessing what reaction he might have had in the press box.

Last night, he didn't have to guess.

"It took me a few years, and I've tried it a lot," Lemieux said. "It's tough to do. You need a good bounce or a good shot on net. I got a good bounce on that one, so it's going to cost my friend over there a few bucks."

Earlier in the day, Lemieux's charitable foundation donated $1 million to Children's Hospital in a ceremony at The Rink at PPG Plaza. After the presentation, he skated with former cancer patients and their families.

"It's something Nathalie and I have wanted to do for a long time," he said. "Being able to skate around with those kids who are cancer survivors ... it was nice to see them living a healthy life."

Nice, too, that Lemieux's foundation gets a head start on the next $1 million. Madden, who said he left his checkbook at home, is planning a radio telethon Friday to help him pay up on the wager.

"Are you sure it was $6,600?" Lemieux asked him. "I thought it was $66,000."

Dejan Kovacevic can be reached at dkovacevic@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1938.

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