Despite overcoming numerous trials during a Hall of Fame career, Mario Lemieux may be facing his toughest challenge since his rookie season.
The Penguins' player-owner looks to take the first step in reviving the financially challenged franchise when Pittsburgh plays host to the Toronto Maple Leafs at Mellon Arena in the season opener for both teams.
For the first time since Lemieux arrived in Pittsburgh at age 18 in 1984, the Penguins are projected as one of the NHL's worst teams rather than one of its best.
A healthy Lemieux can change that forecast.
Lemieux, who was limited to 24 games by a hip injury last season, wants to play nearly every night this season. But he has played as many as 70 games only twice since 1989.
|Mario Lemieux believes he can score two points a game if healthy.|
"The key for me is to play 70 or 75 games," said Lemieux, who has missed the equivalent of four full seasons during his career to injuries or medical problems. "If I can do that, I can get a lot of points, and that only helps the team. I want to go out there and play the game and push myself to the limits."
The Penguins finished last season with an embarrassing 0-8-1-1 stretch, capped by a 7-1 loss at Boston. They also ended the campaign with their worst home record (16-20-4-1) since the 1984-85 season when they were 17-20-3.
"Last year was very disappointing for all of us," Pittsburgh general manager Craig Patrick said. "And we're intent on not letting that happen again."
Pittsburgh must improve its offense if it is to return to the playoffs this season. With injuries claiming nearly every top offensive player at some point last season, the Pens scored only 198 goals.
Alexei Kovalev had a hand in 76 goals last season and the Pens desperately need him to continue his production. Kovalev, who might see action at center this season, has 76 goals and 171 points over the last two campaigns.
Along with keeping Lemieux on the ice, the Pens also hope Martin Straka can stay healthy.
Coming off a 95-point season in 2000-01, Straka missed all but 13 games last season after breaking his leg twice. He also suffered a weightlifting accident in the offseason that will keep him out of action until early November.
Pittsburgh lured Alexandre Daigle out of retirement. The Pens hope the former top prospect helps them replace some of the offense they lost when Jaromir Jagr and Robert Lang left in consecutive offseasons.
While the Penguins are focusing on their offense, the Maple Leafs' main concern is their goaltending.
After leading Toronto to the Eastern Conference Finals last season, Curtis Joseph bolted to the Stanley Cup-champion Detroit Red Wings in the offseason.
The Leafs replaced him with aging netminder Ed Belfour.
Once the league's top goalie, Belfour is looking to revive his career after the Dallas Stars chose youth (Marty Turco) over experience.
However, Toronto also has its own offensive worries.
Left wing Gary Roberts, the Maple Leafs' leading scorer in the playoffs with 19 points in 19 games last season, is out until the new year following surgery on both of his shoulders.
As a result, Toronto has been experimenting with a line combination featuring high-scoring forwards Mats Sundin and Alexander Mogilny.
Sundin, one of the top players in the league, led the team with 41 goals and 80 points last season.
Mogilny missed 16 games due to injury last season and managed just 24 goals -- 19 fewer than he had with New Jersey the previous season.STANDINGS:
Maple Leafs - 100 points, 2nd place, 1 PB, Northeast Division.
Penguins - 69 points, 5th place, 28 PB, Atlantic Division.TEAM LEADERS:
Maple Leafs - Sundin, 41 goals and 80 points; Mikael Renberg, 38 assists; Tie Domi, 157 PIM.
Penguins - Kovalev, 32 goals, 44 assists and 76 points; Krzyzstof Oliwa, 150 PIM.SPECIAL TEAMS:
Maple Leafs - Power play: 15.5 percent (54 for 349), 15th in NHL. Penalty killing: 84.5 percent (277 for 328), 16th.
Penguins - Power play: 14.0 percent (47 for 335), 24th. Penalty killing: 83.8 percent (295 for 352), 18th (tied).GOALTENDERS:
Maple Leafs - Belfour (21-27-11, 1 SO, 2.65 GAA); Trevor Kidd (4-16-5, 1, 3.21).
Penguins - Johan Hedberg (25-34-7, 6, 2.76); Jean-Sebastien Aubin (3-12-1, 0, 3.56).SEASON SERIES:
Tied, 2-2. The Maple Leafs opened the season series with a 4-0 home victory Oct. 27 behind two goals by Sundin. Pittsburgh won the next two, a 3-1 home triumph Nov. 1 and a 1-0 road victory on Dec. 4.LAST MEETING:
April 12, 2002; Maple Leafs, 5-2. At Pittsburgh, Darcy Tucker, Domi, Alexei Ponikarovsky, Travis Green and Mogilny scored for the Maple Leafs.
The Penguins, who were 0-for-5 on the power play, got goals from Kovalev and Dan LaCouture.ROAD/HOME RECORDS:
Maple Leafs - 19-14-4-4 on the road; Penguins - 16-20-4-1 at home.