He's healthy, he's big, and he's back. And he's running away with the NHL scoring title. He could only be Mario Lemieux, the real Super Mario.
"So far, so good," the understated Lemieux said.Approaching the halfway point of the season, he's scored 10 more goals and had 20 more assists than anybody else in the league.
"He's been hurt the last couple of years, but this year he's fresh and healthy," Brett Hull of St. Louis said. "And he's got some unbelievable talent to complement him.
"When you have a mixture of his talent and the talent they've put him with, you're going to have the kind of year he's having."
This is the kind of year Lemieux is having: In 34 games, he had 34 goals and 56 assists for 90 points. The next highest scorer in the league was Pat Lafontaine of Buffalo had 24 goals and 36 assists for a measly 60 points.
If he stays healthy and maintains his pace, Lemieux could break Wayne Gretzky's "untouchable" league record of 215 points in a season.
"The last couple of years, my back bothered me so much I couldn't go out and give 100 percent," Lemieux said. "My back is fine now."
No kidding. In addition to running away with the scoring title, he also nearly broke another cherished record this season, Punch Broadbent's mark for consecutive games with at least one goal. Broadbent scored in 16 straight games for the original Ottawa Senators in 1921-22. Lemieux stopped at 12, but after he was shut out by the New York Islanders, he started another streak.
"It's pretty disappointing when you get that close," said Lemieux, who admitted he hadn't known of the record until late in his streak. "It's a record that's been around for a long time."
And Lemieux figures to be around a while himself, as long as he stays healthy. Earlier this season, the 27-year-old, who is recognized as the best hockey player in the world, signed a seven-year, $42 million contract with the Penguins.
One of the most pressing questions asked Lemieux at the time was about his health, specifically his back. He missed the first 50 games of the 1990-91 season because of surgery for a herniated disc. Last season, he missed an additional 16 games with back problems.
Both times Lemieux came back to win the Conn Smythe Trophy as the playoff MVP, leading Pittsburgh to consecutive Stanley Cup titles.
"Season records are nice," Lemieux said, "but the most important thing is to win the Stanley Cup. That has been my goal throughout my career."
But think of what Lemieux did during the regular season in 1991-92: He won his third scoring title in five years while playing only 64 of his team's 80 games!
"He's a big man with reach and talent," said Washington's Dale Hunter, remembering Lemieux's 44-point performance in last season's playoffs. "He's Gretzky with a bigger reach."
Comparisons with Gretzky are inevitable, of course, since Lemieux has taken over as the league's top player. Gretzky, meanwhile, has been sidelined with back problems of his own and can only watch as Lemieux attacks his records with panache.
Lemieux, a Montreal native who was made the top pick in the 1984 draft by the Penguins out of Canadian juniors, established himself as a force in the 1988 NHL All-Star game in St. Louis. Lemieux, then 22, dominated a game supposedly as Gretzky only could with three assists and three goals, including the game-winner, in the Wales Conference's 6-5 overtime victory over the Campbell.
Playing on the same line with Gretzky the year before at the Canada Cup, Lemieux claimed that he learned a great deal from the Great One, who set up nine of Lemieux's tournament-leading 11 goals.
"He gave me a lot of confidence in myself and I brought it back to Pittsburgh," Lemieux said.
Crowds of 5,000 were common before Lemieux came to Pittsburgh. There was talk that the Penguins, who had never won a championship, would move.
But Lemieux's appearance in the Steel City sparked an urban renewal of sorts, even though he played on some terrible Penguin teams in his early years. His popularity was unchallenged in a city of sports stars.
His face is painted at the top of a downtown building in Pittsburgh, on a mural, above local sports legends like baseball's Roberto Clemente and football's Franco Harris.
Pittsburgh football fans booed Terry Bradshaw and baseball fans threw batteries at Dave Parker. But when Lemieux was having contract talks with the Penguins a couple of years ago, several thousand fans at the Igloo turned toward the owner's superbox, pointed their fingers and said, "Sign Mario."
The Penguins obeyed - twice. They signed him then and signed him again this past October when owner Howard Baldwin thought Lemieux wasn't being paid enough. More to the point, he wanted to make Lemieux a Penguin for life.
He also made him the richest man in the NHL - twice what anyone was making. It was appropriate, some thought. Lemieux was twice the player of many in the NHL.
"He is the most dominant player in our league and to see him score like that is good for our game," said San Jose's Doug Wilson.
Lemieux figures to keep on scoring - as long as his back holds out. Right now, he's feeling "100 per cent."
"I'm able to skate hard and make the plays," Lemieux said. "In the past my back was hurting and I couldn't go at 100 percent all the time. It's just like you don't feel like going to work sometimes when you have a cold."
Pittsburgh goaltender Tom Barrasso thinks Lemieux's health has been the main factor in his remarkable start.
"There's a definite correlation between his health and his desire," Barrasso said. "When he feels healthy, he feels like he could accomplish just about anything."
"What makes Mario so dangerous is his long reach, and he has real good hands," said Chicago goaltender Ed Belfour. "He always knows where to be and he sees the ice real well.
"I'm not surprised at Mario's numbers, he's such a smart player," Beflour said. "I guess when he doesn't score in a game, that's big news."