BLOOMINGTON, Minn. -- If Mario Lemieux's back is sore today, his discomfort will be several hours too late for Minnesota North Stars fans.
Lemieux's presence on the ice last night left the Pittsburgh Penguins feeling like champions after their tense 5-3 victory over the North Stars in Met Center, which tied the best-of-seven series at two games apiece.
"If you put Magic Johnson back in the Lakers' lineup, you know what effect that has on them," Penguins defenseman Gordie Roberts said. "The same thing happened to us. Mario's definitely a key player for us."
Back spasms forced Lemieux to miss Sunday's Game 3 of the Stanley Cup finals -- a 3-1 Minnesota victory -- but he was determined to show that he's still the marquee name.
The gifted center scored one of the Penguins' three goals in the first 2:58 of the game and helped kill the North Stars' five-minute power play during the frantic finish.
Lemieux even felt good enough to exchange jabs with Brian Bellows in the second period after Bellows ran into Penguins goalie Tom Barrasso, who made 35 saves. Lemieux also drew roughing and interference penalties to let the North Stars know he was not out there just in spirit.
"My back felt pretty good all day, but I was scared it might flare up during the game," Lemieux said. "A good indication will be how it feels in the morning."
Lemieux's status for Game 5 tomorrow at Pittsburgh remains uncertain, but the pain will have to be unbearable to keep him out.
Penguins coach Bob Johnson feels the same way. Johnson sent Lemieux back onto the ice about a minute after the North Stars were into the decisive power play they failed to capitalize on.
The Penguins' penalty-killing was so effective that the North Stars were unable to get off a shot.
"We all got a little nervous when the penalty came," Lemieux said. "We know how tough it is to play them in this place."