For as long as I can remember, I have first and foremost been Mario Lemieux fan.
Long before Peyton Manning came along, or the Penguins lucked out with the Sidney Crosby sweepstakes, I was hooked on number 66.
I look back now and I realize that without Wayne Gretzky, maybe I wouldn't gravitate towards Lemieux quite so much. In my adament homerism of Mario Lemieux, someone had to play the bad guy, and Wayne was the perfect fit.
Mario was drafted by the worst team in the league, Wayne entered the league with the high flying WHA Edmonton Oilers.
Teams learned early on that you could beat the Penguins by slowing down Mario, Players learned early on that slowing down Gretzky meant a demotion back to the juniors or a fist full of Dave Semenko or Marty McSorley.
Gretzky played in nearly 1500 games, Lemieux played in just 900.
In the end I had to concede that Gretzky would go down as the Greatest to ever play the game, and Mario would be forever relegated to the "What If..." side of the debate.
As a tribute to Mario I intended to write that "What If" column but I chose instead to go the other route.
Instead, I'm celebrating the brilliant moments in Lemieux's career that that allowed him to go down as one of the greatest of all time, despite the fact that he was limited by injuries for most of his career.
70G - 98A - 160 Points; no playoffs.
The first time a player other than Wayne Gretzky would win the Art Ross trophy in over eight years.
Mario scored 70 Goals in 77 games playing for a Penguins team that was utterly dreadful.
The .500 record is more a testament to the skill of Mario Lemieux than the supporting cast that played for the Penguins that year.
The 1988 Season was notable in that Mario Lemieux set perhaps one of the most unbreakable NHL records against the New Jersey Devils that year. Of his 70 goals that year, five of them came in one game against the New Jersey Devils.
What makes his five goals so remarkable is that each was scored a different way. He managed to score an even-strength, short-handed, power-play, penalty-shot, and empty-net goal, ALL IN THE SAME GAME.
Many, including Lemieux himself credit the 1987 Canada Cup for his great season. During the Canada Cup that year, he played with Wayne Gretzky and Mark Messier and had truly skilled players around him for the first time in his career. The experience lit a fire under him that allowed him to finally up his game to a point that he could distance himself from the pack and begin to show signs that he would dominate the NHL for years to come.
Without the injuries, seasons like 1987-88 might have been the norm rather than just the highlights to a brilliant career.
19G – 26A - 45 points + 44 Points (16G – 28A); made playoffs.
People are definitely going to question putting a season where Lemieux only had 45 points into his top five seasons—but this isn’t a list of just his highest-scoring seasons.
1991 was remarkable for the Penguins due to the fact that management finally saw the light and made an effort to surround their star player with some talent.
The Penguins lucked out when Jaromir Jagr dropped to fifth overall that year in the draft. (Rumor has it that Petr Nedved told Vancouver that Jagr was 10 times the player he was and absolutely the best player available in the draft that year. Thankfully Vancouver drafted Nedved anyways with the second pick.)
1991 would be the year that Mario’s back finally gave out on him. While he never enjoyed an injury-free season, 1990-91 would be the start of those injuries taking significant time away from Lemieux and the start of the what could have been debate.
True to form, though, Lemieux returned in time for the playoffs, though he was far below 100 percent. Players in the Penguins dressing room recall that his back was so bad he couldn’t bend down to tie up his own skates.
Yet despite the pain, Lemieux managed to record 44 points in 23 playoff games. The point total would stand up as the second-largest total for the playoff ever. Behind Lemieux’s Conn Smythe performance, the Penguins would win their first of two Cups.
As for the low point total I alluded to at the beginning? When all the games were played, Lemieux managed 95 Points in just 49 games played that year.
Not so bad when you look at the season in that light.
133G – 149A - 282 points; 52 Points (29G - 23A) in the playoffs.
I know this was a season in Junior but the numbers were so astronomical that they are worth including. 300 points in one year is such a remarkable number, it's no wonder the New Jersey Devils and Pittsburgh Penguins were throwing games left right and center to finish last in the NHL and get the number-one pick.
While Lemieux dominated the Q the entire season, leading his team to the Championship and losing only 16 of 70 games along the way, it was the final game of the regular season that Lemieux put the exclamation point on things.
Needing three goals to tie Guy Lafleur’s record for goals in a season, Lemieux had a 12-point night (6G – 6A) to take the record by three goals.
In the history of the CHL no player has ever scored more goals or had more points in one season than Lemiuex’s 1984 season.
85G - 114A - 199 Points + 19 Points(12G - 7A) Playoffs
Mario Lemieux scores 199 Points and takes the Art Ross trophy home for the second-consecutive season. I still believe someone needs to comb through the video to find another point, but that is beside the point.
Lemiuex’s 85 goals were a career best and came in just 76 games. Lemieux also managed to join the 50/50 club scoring 50 goals in 44 games (officially, 46 games).
Lemieux would go on to add another 12 goals and 19 points in the playoffs that year, effectively giving him 97 goals for the year.
To truly understand the mind-boggling aspect of Lemieux’s performance that year, take a moment to realize that this year's Art Ross could conceivably go to a player who scores fewer points than Lemieux had assists (114).
It’s also worth pointing out that the Penguins had virtually no other recognizable talent on their roster in '89 besides Lemieux and Paul Coffey. Mario effectively made Rob Brown into a 50-goal, 100-point player that year.
By far his best statistical season, but not his greatest season, at least not in my books....
69G - 91A - 160 Points; 18 Points (8G – 10A) in the playoffs.
Without question Lemeiux’s 1993 might go down as the greatest hockey season ever played in the history of the game. Others might have put up flashier numbers or more points, but in 1993 Mario Lemieux was on pace to challenge all those records at the midway point of the season.
Then in January, hockey took a backseat for Lemieux and his family. The hockey world stood in collective shock at the announcement that Mario Lemieux had cancer and would cease playing immediately in order to treat this disease aggressively with chemotherapy treatments.
Mario missed two full months of NHL action while undergoing treatment, during which time his scoring lead over Pat Lafontaine was erased and turned into a 12-point deficit.
The fact that Mario Lemieux was returning to play this season was remarkable enough, but what he did in the final month of the NHL season was simply unbelievable.
On the day of his last treatment of radiation, Lemieux boarded a plane for Philly and played that night. He received a standing ovation from the Philly fans that night and had two points in the game.
Lemieux would score at an unbelievable pace and the Penguins would go on to win 17 games in a row to finish the season.
When all the games were played Lemieux had turned the 12-point deficit over Lafontaine into a 12-point lead for the Art Ross trophy. He scored an average of just under three points a game for the season and put up 160 points in just 60 games that year.
Oh yeah—did I mention that he freakin' beat cancer during all that too? UNBELIEVABLE.
I was always a big Lemieux homer before this season, after that season It was bordering on hero worship. No longer would I even entertain the notion that Wayne Gretzky was the more gifted hockey player.
1992-93 ended the debate about pure talent between the two of them for me.