It's not all cheers in Lemieux return

Caps, for example, welcome, fear him

Hockey

January 08, 2001|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

This is the 13th day of Mario Lemieux's NHL comeback.

Already, the Washington Capitals know more than they want to.

Super Mario, back after a 3 1/2 -year absence, is still Murderers' Row all by himself.

"His conditioning isn't all there yet," said Capitals goalie Olie Kolzig, who is expected to be in net tonight against Lemieux for the second time in five days. "But his eyes are still good. His peripheral vision is still intact. His instincts are still right on. ... And it is clear he missed the game.

"I think he saw the game has changed. There isn't as much clutch and grab going on. He had, what, nine points in his first three games? [Lemieux now has 12 in four games.] That tells you everything right there."

With his point production even stronger than when he left the league as the only man to average two points per game, he has already reached a milestone, becoming the 10th NHL player to score 1,500 points.

And off the ice, the player/owner has set what also may be a record, having increased Penguins ticket sales by at least $2.9 million even before playing his first game Dec. 27.

His return has also enticed ESPN to carry the first five games of this comeback live. And the initial result of that decision was to see ratings approximately double ESPN's regular-season average for an NHL game, as 812,000 homes tuned in.

In Washington, ticket sales for tonight's game and a March 3 visit jumped dramatically with the announcement of Lemieux's return. The same is true in Boston, where the Penguins play tomorrow.

"There's excitement anytime a great player comes back," said Capitals general manager George McPhee. "You saw it when [Michael] Jordan came back to basketball and now with Lemieux.

"It causes all kinds of anticipation. People want to see how he responds to 3 1/2 years off. How he's coached. How he plays. All of us who study the game want to see him and to see what happens."

When Caps center Jeff Halpern was a boy and a Capitals fan, he'd go to Washington-Pittsburgh games and Mario Lemieux would cause him a lot of angst.

Lemieux scored 47 goals and 91 points in 55 regular-season games against Washington. Then Lemieux retired and, 18 months later, Halpern became a Capital. While Pittsburgh continued to disrupt the Capitals' playoff plans, at least Lemieux was gone.

But then he came back and Wednesday night in Pittsburgh he scored a goal and assisted on two others in his team's 3-2 win over Washington, and Halpern found out what it meant to play against the legend he used to watch.

"He had a lot of success against us when I was a kid," said Halpern, 24. "Those years when I watched, it was kind of tough. They do get the great calls, and it can be frustrating."

So, Halpern said, when he and his teammates went on the ice in Pittsburgh in the third game of Lemieux's return, there was a charge in the atmosphere - just as there will be a buzz tonight.

"In a situation like that, it was a big game, and the novelty of it was pretty exciting," he said. "We don't like that team, anyway. When you play a game like that, you want to rise to the occasion. You want to win.

"We respect Mario for what he's done, but it's a big rivalry for us and we can't show him too much respect - which is what I think sometimes happens. No one wants to hit guys like him, but you've got to punish skillful guys like that who handle the puck. ... You've got to pound them."

But, Halpern said, it was hard to pound Lemieux for more than one reason.

"I think one of the things that gets overlooked is that he is a big man and he uses that size," Halpern said. "He's 6-4, 240. You have to catch him off guard, and that doesn't happen often. I played four shifts against him and I did hit him, but it's tough to move him. A 200-pound guy like me, hitting a man 240, it's pure physics. So ..."

Caps defenseman Ken Klee, 6 feet 1, 212, remembered that, four years ago, Lemieux wasn't so strong.

"Mario is much stronger than before," Klee said. "When I first played him, he was kind of weak. He'd had back trouble and Hodgkin's disease. He's physically better now after a couple years of healing."

Klee said Lemieux's one-on-one abilities are not yet up to Jaromir Jagr's, and McPhee noted that Lemieux before retirement "carried his line," controlling the puck, dictating the play.

McPhee anticipates Lemieux's role will expand as his conditioning improves. But, for now, Jagr and Jan Hrdina, Lemieux's left wing, do most of that work, while Lemieux looks for the open space, "where with the flick of his wrist" he still can change the outcome of a game.

And, because of that, the Capitals play Lemieux, and every other strong playmaker, physically.

One of the men coach Ron Wilson depends on to harass Lemieux is relentless left wing Steve Konowalchuk, who thrives on putting his stick in tight places and challenging for every puck.

A day or so after playing Lemieux last week, Konowalchuk let a small smile peek out.

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