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by Staff Writer / Pittsburgh Penguins

Mario Lemieux returned to Mellon Arena ice Monday.

Lemieux, who has been out of the lineup for nearly a month with an irregular heartbeat diagnosed as atrial fibrillation, skated with his teammates for the first time since a Dec. 16 home game against the Buffalo Sabres.

“It was a good first day,” Lemieux said.

Super Mario has set no timetable for his return to the lineup, though.

“This is my first day [on the ice] in about three weeks to a month. I skated a couple times before, but that was with [my son] Austin and that was not a big test for me,” Lemieux said with a smile. “I have to get back in pretty decent shape. When you don’t skate for a long period of time, that’s the most-difficult part – to come back and try to get your legs underneath you, especially at this stage of the season because everybody is in pretty good shape. So, to get back to that level is going to take some time.”

Lemieux entered a Pittsburgh-area hospital on Dec. 7 after experiencing an irregular heartbeat during practice that morning. He was discharged on Dec. 8 and put on medication to regulate the heartbeat. He missed the Penguins’ next four games before returning on Dec. 16 against the Sabres.

However, Lemieux had a recurrence of the atrial fibrillation during the third period of the game. He has been held out of the lineup since – a span of nine games – while doctors try to find the right dosage of medication.

“They changed it again about four or five days ago and it seems to be working fine,” Lemieux said. “This fibrillation can be taken care of with medication and that’s what we’re trying to do now. The next step is to get in shape and get back on the ice and play.”

Lemieux won’t play Tuesday when Edmonton visits Mellon Arena or during the team’s upcoming three-game roadtrip to Columbus, Chicago and Nashville, but will accompany the team.

“I am going to go on the road with the team and practice and try to get back to a decent level,” he said. “We’ll see how far I can go.”

Lemieux said the medication is working well. However, it has one major side effect.

“My taste has changed quite a bit. I am not able to taste my food or what I drink. Just tasting the food – you take it for granted sometimes. I guess that’s just a side effect,” he said. “Other than that, I have been feeling pretty good.”

While he has been off the ice, Lemieux has watched the Penguins (11-21-9) improve under Michel Therrien, who took over as head coach on Dec. 15. The Penguins are 3-4-3 with nine points in 10 games under Therrien.

“I think we’re playing well, especially with the system we have. I think [the system] is a lot better than what we saw earlier in the season and I think the team is starting to jell a little more now,” Lemieux said. “It’s a big improvement; it’s just matter of cutting down on penalties and special teams maybe doing a little bit better job. Five-on-five, I thought we’re pretty good.”

Lemieux has missed 15 games through Pittsburgh’s first 41 games. He has 22 points (7+15) in 26 games. All-time, Lemieux has 690 goals and 1,033 assists for 1,723 points in 915 games played. He has missed 390 games, not including a three-and-a-half-year retirement, throughout his career with a variety of different ailments.


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