Mario Lemieux had many memorable games with the Pittsburgh Penguins, but in today’s “When Sports Were Played” we go back exactly 31 years, to April 25, 1989, and a playoff game against Philadelphia when Super Mario had perhaps his best game, a 5-goal, 8-point performance.
PITTSBURGH – Mario Lemieux played the most important hockey game of his career Tuesday night. That he did so with strained neck muscles which limited his peripheral vision will only add to the legend.
The 23-year-old center has given Penguins fans a lifetime of memories in his five short seasons in the National Hockey League, but on this night he sent 16,025 of them here at the Civic Arena into a frenzy with the most magical performance of his career.
Cleared to play by team doctors less than 12 hours earlier, Lemieux scored four goals in the opening period and finished with five goals and eight points as the Penguins hammered Philadelphia 10-7 to take a 3-2 lead in their Patrick Division final series.
Both his five goals and eight points tied NHL playoff records and Lemieux’s four-goal period tied the NHL record first set by Philadelphia’s Tim Kerr in April, 1979. Lemieux, who twice had eight-point games this season, unofficially set 11 team playoff records in the game, and a number of other Pittsburgh and Philadelphia records.
“I’ve had some great games, but under a lot of pressure like that, a key for the team … I think that was one of the best,” Lemieux said. “This was a must game for us. This was a big game for everybody, the team, the franchise. There was no tomorrow for us in our mind. We had to get off to a quick start and get some goals.”
Battered and frustrated by the Flyers in Game 4, during which he suffered his neck injury after being accidentally checked by teammate Randy Cunneyworth, Lemieux emerged from his morning checkup to put Philadelphia on the ropes. The Flyers face elimination when the series resumes Thursday night at the Spectrum, with the winner advancing to the Wales Conference finals against Montreal.
“Those things happen,” he said of his rough treatment in Game 4. “All I want to do is come back the next game and try to hurt the other team by doing what I did.”
Playing like a man possessed – and with a minimum of pain – Lemieux seemed to own the puck when he was on the ice Tuesday. He won faceoffs seemingly at will, threw perfect passes to teammates as a matter of routine and overwhelmed Flyers goaltender Ron Hextall. Lemieux scored three goals in the opening 6:55 of the game, becoming only the second Pittsburgh player to record a playoff hat trick.
Those may have been the three quickest playoff goals by one player in NHL history, the record for which was not immediately available.
Tied for 13th in the league in playoff scoring prior to this game, Lemieux was third when it ended. He has eight goals and 13 points against the Flyers and 11 goals and 18 points in nine playoff games.
“There’s not much he can’t do,” said coach Gene Ubriaco. “That first period he was just awesome. Sometimes it just takes Mario to lead the way.”
By the time Lemieux scored his fourth goal by grabbing a loose puck behind the Philadelphia net, warding off Hextall with his body and dumping the puck into the open net, the Flyers were out of options in their vain attempts to stop him. So they tried an old Philadelphia staple, sending Craig Berube out to talk with him.
Their emotions seemed to get the best of the Flyers all night. Al Secord was called for high-sticking Phil Bourque 10 seconds after the opening faceoff, and five seconds after that penalty expired Lemieux scored his first goal, beating Hextall on a breakaway. Hextall dropped his stick in preparation to go after Rob Brown halfway through the first period and later was given a 10-minute misconduct for chasing Brown after the Pittsburgh right wing’s second goal of the game at 12:55 of the second period. Hextall was twice pulled by coach Paul Holmgren.
But Lemieux showed just as much emotion early in the game, something he normally does not do. He wasn’t about to lose this game, and the message was clear.
“I’d hate to think where we might have been without Mario tonight,” said defenseman Jim Johnson. Added Brown, “Mario played great tonight, but we come to expect that Mario game in and game out.”
Pittsburgh led by 9-3 after two periods but the Flyers didn’t quit. They scored four goals while taking 21 shots at Tom Barrasso in the final period before Lemieux scored his fifth goal into an empty net.
Left wing Bob Errey, the only Pittsburgh regular without a playoff point prior to the game, scored a goal and had two assists, and the Penguins also got goals from Troy Loney and Kevin Stevens. Defenseman Paul Coffey had four assists, setting a team record for one playoff game.