PITTSBURGH -- "Anticipation," said Pittsburgh Penguin coach Scotty Bowman, offering a one-word explanation for the unexplainable.
"The great players are a step ahead. They can anticipate what's going to happen."
That's the kind of thing hockey people have been saying about Mario Lemieux for years. The only thing they can say, really, to explain why Lemieux always seems to be in the right place at the right time. Why it is, as Washington Capitals defenseman Al Iafrate says, "The puck seems to follow him around. It has his whole career."
So, accept the fact that it was anticipation that placed him next to the normally sure-handed Peter Stastny of the New Jersey Devils when Stastny mishandled the puck on a Devils power play Thursday night and, in the process, created a breakaway opportunity for Lemieux. Of course, he scored. Anybody could have anticipated that.
But possibly no one other than Lemieux anticipated his stunning re-emergence in the 1992-93 NHL League scoring race. While others were just worried about whether he would even return this season after treatment for Hodgkin's disease, Lemieux was mentally computing what kind of effort he would need to overtake the Buffalo Sabres' Pat LaFontaine for the scoring title.
And, as usual, Lemieux had it figured right. He missed 23 games, underwent weekly radiation treatments, fell behind LaFontaine by 18 points and somehow knew he was still in the race.
"I knew I had to get a couple of five- or six-point games to get back in the race," said Lemieux, who has 30 career hat tricks. "I felt it was mine if I came back strong."
Consider it his. He has come back so strong, it has become numbing. Six points against Washington, March 18. Five points against Philadelphia, March 20. Five points against San Jose, March 23. Four points against New Jersey, March 25.
Yesterday against Boston, Lemeiux had two goals and an assist, cutting LaFontaine's lead to two points.
Should Lemieux catch LaFontaine, it would be his fourth Art Ross Trophy in nine years -- not bad for someone who has had to battle back problems much of his career, to say nothing of Wayne Gretzky. More importantly, if he does it he could be elevated from great hockey player to transcendent sports figure. Hockey doesn't have many of those, but considering his ability and the circumstances of this season, Lemieux appears qualified.
"Playing with Mario is pretty astonishing," said line mate Kevin Stevens, who has played in 14 more games than Lemieux, but has three fewer goals -- 55-52. "His eyes are lighting up out there. When that happens, he's scary to watch."
He has been downright petrifying to the opposition. His current nine-game scoring streak has produced 15 goals and 15 assists. Not coincidentally, the Penguins (who went 11-11-2 in Lemieux's absence) have won all nine games and last week became the first Patrick Division team to clinch a playoff spot.
But the Patrick race had been all but conceded to the Penguins before Lemieux was diagnosed with nodular lymphocytic cancer his neck in early January. For the two-time defending Stanley ++ Cup champions, the Patrick Division crown was expected. Lemieux's spectacular return was not.
"Unless you have been close to someone who has the type of experience he is going through it is not possible to understand it," said Penguins goalie Tom Barrasso, whose daughter, Ashley, survived a bout with cancer two years ago. "One moment he had the feeling that everything he had was being taken away from him and then he realizes he's got it back. He's so excited to play every night now.
"I feel for the teams we're playing. He's such a dominant player."
"With Mario, every time you move the puck, you have a chance to score," said teammate Rick Tocchet. "That's the scary thing. When you're playing with the other guys it's OK and you try to create scoring chances. With Mario, you know you're going to get a chance to score every shift and you've got to be ready."
Lemieux's return has rekindled the Penguins' drive for the best record in the regular season.
Because of Lemieux's assorted ailments -- he has missed 94 games in the past three seasons -- that has not been a realistic goal for the Penguins. But it now appears as inevitable as another Lemieux scoring title.
"We can play much better than we have in the last eight games," said Lemieux, noting the team's third-period collapses that have turned lopsided games into narrow victories.
"I'll never get tired of winning championships or scoring titles. I'll do everything I can to win it."
The Penguins' Mario Lemieux has 30 points (15 goals and 15 assists) in his past nine games:
Date ... ... ... ... ... ... Opponent ... ... G ... ... A
3/9 ... ... ... ... .. .. .. Boston ... .. .. 0 ... ... 1
3/11 .. ... ... ... .. .. .. Los Angeles .. .. 1 .. ... 3
3/14 .. ... ... ... .. .. .. N.Y. Islanders .. 0 .. ... 1
3/18 ... ... ... ... ... ... Washington ... .. 4 .. ... 2
3/20 ... ... ... ... ... ... Philadelphia .. .. 4 .. .. 1
3/21 ... ... ... ... ... ... Edmonton ... .. .. 1 .. .. 0
3/23 ... ... ... ... ... ... San Jose ... .. .. 2 .. .. 3
3/25 ... ... ... ... ... ... New Jersey ... ... 1 .. .. 3
3/27 ... ... ... ... ... ... Boston ... ... ... 2 .. .. 1