PITTSBURGH — Mario Lemieux may have been merely postponing the inevitable when he led the Pittsburgh Penguins to a 4-1 victory over the Philadelphia Flyers Wednesday and kept his team from being swept out of the Eastern Conference quarterfinals. But the brilliance and drama of his third-period breakaway goal was a thrill not to be missed--even if it was also a poignant reminder of what the NHL will lose when Lemieux retires after this season.
The 69th--and perhaps final--playoff goal of his marvelous career was a forehand shot past a befuddled Garth Snow with 64 seconds left in what might have been Lemieux's final home game. It sparked a thunderous ovation from the adoring crowd of 17,355 at the Civic Arena and evoked a rare public display of emotion from the 31-year-old center, who waved and blew kisses as he skated a postgame lap around the rink.
"It was just appreciation of everything I've gone through over the years here in Pittsburgh," said Lemieux, who revived a faltering franchise when he arrived in 1984 and led the Penguins to Stanley Cups in 1991 and 1992. "The fans have been great.
"It's the first time I've cried on the ice in a long time. It was very emotional. It's something I'll remember for a long time."
Said Penguin Coach Craig Patrick: "It was perfect, absolutely perfect. You couldn't write a better script than that."
Not to be cynical, but the Penguins still trail the Flyers, 3-1, in this best-of-seven series and must play Game 5 on Saturday at Philadelphia. They've lost eight consecutive games there and are 0-14-1 on the road since the All-Star break, including losses in the first two games of this series. And only two teams--the 1942 Toronto Maple Leafs and 1975 New York Islanders--have rallied to win a best-of-seven series after losing the first three games.
Lemieux, who overcame Hodgkin's disease and back problems while winning six scoring titles and three most-valuable-player awards, knows something about overcoming forbidding odds. "At least we have one more game at Philly. Who knows, maybe we'll go there and play a solid 60 minutes and win," he said. "I'd love to come back here [for a sixth game Monday]."
Said teammate Ron Francis: "I think he'll always surprise me until he's finally done with it. He's written so many stories during his years here. I hope he's got a few more stories left in him."