Penguins compensate for Lemieux Teammates expect star back this year

January 26, 1993|By Bill Modoono | Bill Modoono,Contributing Writer

PITTSBURGH -- This was the day he was due back. The Pittsburgh Penguins were staring at a nasty stretch of four consecutive games against Patrick Division rivals and, conveniently enough, Mario Lemieux's back figured to be rested and ready for the test.

But the NHL never has been known for convenience. More important, neither has Hodgkin's disease, which doctors diagnosed in Lemieux two weeks ago, while he was resting his ailing back.

About two weeks have passed since the stunning news of Lemieux's illness was made public. The Penguins have had to deal with that, naturally, but they have had the additional burden of carrying the NHL's best record without the NHL's best player. And while everyone remains confident of Lemieux's recovery -- the cure rate for an early diagnosis of Hodgkin's disease is more than 90 percent -- there is somewhat less optimism about the 1992-93 Penguins.

"Everybody feels he'll be back," said defenseman Larry Murphy, who will be in the lineup for a game against his former teammates, the Washington Capitals, tonight at the Civic Arena. "Whether it will be six weeks from now or eight weeks from now, we don't know, but we expect him back this season.

"Obviously, we're not as good without him, but, in the short run, we can compensate for his absence. Our goal is to maintain our position in the standings until he gets back."

The Penguins hold down first place in the Patrick Division, 14 points ahead of second-place Washington. No other divisional leader has as comfortable a lead.

The Penguins have played .500 hockey (4-4) since Lemieux last was on the ice. He left a game early on Jan. 5, complaining of back pain. On Jan. 15, Lemieux held a news conference at which he disclosed he had Hodgkin's disease. Since then, the Penguins have gone 3-1, with two of the wins coming on the road.

"It's different," said left wing Kevin Stevens, Pittsburgh's leading scorer in Lemieux's absence. "Obviously, we're concentrating a lot more on defense. Now, we figure we can only give up two or three goals a game and hope we can get three or four."

In hockey terms, the Penguins have a simple estimate of Lemieux's worth. He averaged 2.0 points and was worth a comparable amount on defense through his work killing penalties.

"We've had to tighten up defensively," said assistant coach Rick Paterson. "But we still have enough guys to score some goals. We'll still get our chances."

Indeed, Lemieux's brilliance was such that it often obscured the offensive abilities of Stevens (36 goals, 33 assists), Rick Tocchet (27, 33) and Jaromir Jagr (20, 34). The Penguins have five players with 20 or more goals and could well have three more by season's end.

But lots of teams can produce impressive scoring statistics. With Lemieux, the Penguins got stats and Stanley Cups.

"Without Mario, they're still a tough team," said Calgary's Gary Leeman, after the Penguins defeated the Flames, 4-3, in Calgary Saturday night. "But, with Mario, they're Stanley Cup champions."

After tonight's game, the Penguins play the New York Islanders and Philadelphia Flyers at home before going to the Capital Centre for a noon game Sunday.

If the Penguins play as well in those four games as they did on the road last week, Lemieux's absence might not affect the Patrick Division's final standings.

"We're the rabbit, and they're all going for us, especially Washington," said Murphy. "If we do well over these next four games, we'll be in a real solid position."

Penguins coach Scotty Bowman has made a few tactical changes in Lemieux's absence, most notably moving Jagr from right wing to center, where he has teamed with Tocchet and Shawn McEachern. Jagr has adapted well to his new role and is one of several players who has received more time to shine in Lemieux's absence.

"Mario took away 30 minutes of ice time a game," said Paterson. "It takes two guys to replace him."

"Mario was the one who got us where we are now," said Stevens. "There's no reason if we all pull together, we can't stay there. But it has to be 20 guys every night now. Not three or four."

Lemieux's treatment

Mario Lemieux is scheduled to begin radiation treatment for Hodgkin's disease within a week, and the regimen will last four to five weeks.

Five times a week, Lemieux will receive the treatment. Each day, he will get two doses of radiation, each lasting up to a minute. He will be exposed to radiation that's 50 times stronger than an X-ray.

Lemieux might need at least two weeks to recover from side effects of the radiation, which often leaves patients fatigued. He might return in time for the playoffs.

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