My mind has a weird thing about remembering dates. Mention 12/23 and instantly the first thing I think of is 2002. Going to a game at the Igloo as a Christmas present with my mom. Ironically, and weirdly enough, the only NHL game that she has still ever attended. Boy, it was a good one.
The game started off normally enough and seemed to be headed to overtime, perhaps a tie. Mario Lemieux changed that in the 3rd period, scoring one of the most iconic goals in his illustrious career. The official dropped the puck, Mario swiftly hacked past Buffalo Sabres center Chris Gratton and rocketed a shot past goalie Mika Noronen.
As you can see from the score, that made the game 3-2, and would eventually stand up as the game winner. That, plus the level of fame from the faceoff goal is where the story stops, but it isn't the whole story.
But that goal was the second in a 6:01 flurry that saw the shortly lived Martin Straka - Mario Lemieux - Alex Kovalev line combine to score 4 times, all at even strength. The word "unstoppable" is often thrown in sports, but in that third period that trio was showing off skill that has rarely been seen, scoring seemingly at will on every shift.
The 2002-03 Penguins fell apart soon after, Kovalev was traded (basically sold) back to the Rangers just two months later. Straka would be injured and Lemieux, on his bad hip, limped through the final mostly-healthy season of his career on a last place team, limping towards the lockout and financial stability and also the new core that would begin in earnest with the high pick born out of that dreadful season in the form of a young goalie from Quebec named Marc-Andre Fleury.
However despite that long winding path, 2 nights before Christmas in 2002, there was a lot of magic in the air in the old barn known as the Mellon Arena. For one more night, even in a dark season, the stars were shining bright and provided an unforgettable holiday memory.