PITTSBURGH -- Mario Lemieux keeps proving what a special athlete is. Off the ice, he has failed to allow Hodgkin's disease to interrupt his season for very long. Last night, he reminded everyone how wonderful he can be on the ice.
Lemieux scored four goals and had two assists in a near-flawless performance that led the Pittsburgh Penguins over the Washington Capitals, 7-5, at the Civic Arena.
Lemieux scored his first goal in the game's first minute, had his 29th career hat trick 3 1/2 minutes into the second period and his eighth four-goal game at 5:35 of the third period.
And yet his goal scoring was almost incidental. More impressive was his ability to anticipate where the puck was going and doing the exact right thing once he got to it. Almost every time he touched the puck, he was a scoring threat.
"The puck is going to follow him; it has his whole career," said Capitals defenseman Al Iafrate. Iafrate said he was not surprised by Lemieux's effort, but was disappointed that his teammates did not challenge Lemieux with more vigor.
"If you play scared of Lemieux's line, they're going to kill you," said Iafrate. "And that's what they did."
"I don't know what it is about Mario Lemieux with us," Capitals coach Terry Murray said. "We show him so much respect, we turn the puck over to him time after time."
The Capitals scored five times in the final period (three after starting goalie Tom Barrasso left with a bruised knee) to make the final score appear respectable. But this night was special, and it belonged to Lemieux, who was playing in just his sixth game since coming back from radiation treatments.
"It felt pretty good tonight," said Lemieux. "I was able to skate a little better. Hopefully, I can do the same every night."
One minute into the game, Lemieux was cruising the circle to the right of Capitals goalie Don Beaupre when forward Kevin Stevens cleared the puck across ice after taking it off the boards on the opposite side. Lemieux one-timed Stevens' "pass" and zipped it by a stunned Beaupre.
Lemieux got his 43rd goal (in 46 games) a few minutes later, and this time he had no help from his teammates. Instead, he took the puck away from Mike Ridley on a faceoff -- not normally a Lemieux specialty -- and skated in on Beaupre untouched to give Pittsburgh a 2-0 lead at 4:28.
Lemieux started the second period the same way he started the first. After the Capitals were thwarted on a power play, Lemieux intercepted a pass at the Penguins' blue line and started a rush up ice. He might have had a breakaway had not Kevin Hatcher decided to hook him near center ice. Nonetheless, Lemieux dragged Hatcher long enough to shovel a pass to Jaromir Jagr, who skated in on Beaupre and scored his 27th goal at 2:57.
Lemieux made it 4-0 at 3:30, when he got his 29th career hat trick. He anticipated a carom off the boards in the Washington zone and beat Beaupre high to the short side. The sellout Civic Arena crowd erupted on that one, but Lemieux was far from done.
On a power play late in the period, he set up Stevens with a perfect pass that Stevens one-timed past Beaupre for his 49th goal. It was Lemieux's fifth point of the night and it made the score 5-0 at 14:45.
Washington 0 0 5 -- 5
Pittsburgh 2 3 2 -- 7