PITTSBURGH -- In this city, when they say "he," there's no reason to ask who "he" is, especially during hockey season.
"He's up to the level he had last year," said Penguins coach Scotty Bowman, as he began to tick off the ways Mario Lemieux did a number on the Washington Capitals during Pittsburgh's 6-4 victory last night.
Lemieux had three goals, his first scores of the three games played to date with the Capitals leading 2-1 in the Patrick Division semifinals heading into tomorrow night's fourth game at the Civic Arena.
Then there were three assists, meaning he had a hand in all the Penguins' scoring.
"This is going to sound a little strange," said Capitals coach Terry Murray, "but when I heard Rick Tocchet wasn't playing [bad shoulder], the first thing I thought that it would mean more ice time for Lemieux."
And so it was as he played on the Penguins' power play, of which there were a dozen, and he was out there most of the time killing penalties -- 10 power plays for the Capitals.
"After practice yesterday [Wednesday] and at the skate this morning," said Bowman, "I got the impression the guys were ready to chew nails."
It did end up that way, with the Penguins scoring four straight goals at one point. But at the start, the Penguins caused all sorts of consternation in the minds of their fans.
They were loose with the puck during an early power play and Washington scored short-handed, Mike Ridley setting up Kevin Hatcher on a two-on-one breakaway. The first of Lemieux's assists, Phil Bourque scoring, tied it before the Capitals' Dimitri Khristich gave the visitors a 2-1 lead after a period.
Then Lemieux took over. Held in check during five power-play opportunities during the first 20 minutes, Pittsburgh scored on all three of its man-advantage tries in the second period. Meanwhile, the Caps did not threaten seriously.
Lemieux assisted Joe Mullen and Jaromir Jagr, then scored twice himself. "I missed one of the goals," Bowman said, "I didn't even know he had taken a shot. But he saw the goalie [Don Beaupre] move a bit and he tossed it for the far corner."
The Penguins were seemingly happy to ride out the match with a 5-2 lead entering the third period, until goals by Al Iafrate and Hatcher closed the gap to 5-4 with a little more than a minute left to play.
Out of the Washington goal came Beaupre for a sixth attacker and onto the ice came Lemieux for one last shift. It took him about 15 seconds to get his stick on the puck, which means it took the Penguins about 16 seconds to get the empty-net goal that wrapped it up.
"We never could get a tempo going," said Murray, "but that's the way it goes sometimes. I don't know if any of the penalties were good or bad. And it went both ways. I had no idea the game would be like this. I planned on a little more five-on-five hockey."
There wasn't much, not with 22 power plays.
Bowman characterized referee Don Koharski as one of the top two officials in the game, so he gave him the benefit of the doubt, saying, "He certainly showed the guys he wasn't about to take any guff out there."
"In this league," Murray said, "you live in fear that Mario is going to have a game like that on you. Special teams is such a big part of this game and he's an expert at all facets of it.
"You hope to take something out of a loss like this and tomorrow [today] I think we'll be looking at our penalty killing. We usually try to go two lines and four defensemen against Lemieux, but that may not be enough."
It certainly wasn't last night.
NOTES -- With Randy Burridge back in Washington nursing a hyper-extended knee, Todd Krygier got the call to skate on the fourth line. . . . After losing the first two games of the series, the Penguins all-time playoff record fell to 44-44. . . .The Caps carry a 39-42 mark in this their 10th straight visit to postseason play. . . .Bowman improved to 115-74 in the postseason, breaking a tie with Al Arbour to become the winningest playoff coach in NHL history.