From the time the Penguins traded Jaromir Jagr in July 2001 to when they won the Sidney Crosby lottery in July 2005, there weren’t very many good days for the franchise. The team parted ways with almost all of their best players for little or no return thanks to the financial reality that was the pre-salary cap world in the NHL and the economics of having to deal with the Mellon Arena.
One rare good day in this dark period was definitely 11 years ago today, December 23rd, 2002, when Mario Lemieux scored a goal directly off a faceoff.
The story behind the goal is a cool one too- radio personality Mark Madden had a running bet with Lemieux about whether he could score in this fashion with Madden announcing he’d give $6,600 to the Mario Lemieux Foundation if he could. This is why as soon as 66 scores, he raises his arms and looks up to the press box, where Madden was sitting to let him know he didn’t forget the bet. Madden recently said on the Pens Nation podcast that it was definitely worth the money to be saluted instantly by Lemieux like that, and he has a point, that was a cool gesture.
This goal would give the Pens a 3-2 lead and count as the game-winning goal, because of course it would. That’s just how Mario Lemieux rolls. He also had to wait for just the right situation- a faceoff on the right side against a left-handed player. All the planets aligned, as they tend to do for the great ones, and Lemieux did the rest.
But, it also was the second goal of four that the Penguins scored in a 6:02 stretch of the game. All four goals came from the Martin Straka – Lemieux – Alexei Kovalev line that just couldn’t be stopped that night by the Sabres. Lemieux finished the night with that goal and 3 more assists, Straka with a goal and an assist and Kovalev with 2 goals and an assist.
It’d be one of a few highlights for a team that finished 27-44-6-5, and one of the last gasp moments of greatness for Lemieux as well. Mario would only go on to play 69 more games in the NHL after this night, due to groin, hip and back injuries. Other than playing a few games with Crosby in the twilight of his playing days, this goal (along with his play for Team Canada in the ’02 Olympics) was probably the best, last, highlight moment Lemieux had.