15 years ago today, Mario Lemieux added perhaps his list magical moment as a player when he scored directly off a faceoff in a game against the Buffalo Sabres.
From a previous Pensburgh writeup, this moment was pretty much the last gasp of something good happening for the Penguins for a while.
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.
15 years ago were some tough times, the finances of hockey were out of whack with rich teams like New York and Detroit spending well over two times more on payroll than smaller teams. No salary cap. Over a year after dealing Jaromir Jagr, the Penguins were already in the process of selling off all of their good players for pennies on the dollar to simply stay in business. Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin were still unknown teenagers. The PPG Paints Arena was but a dream, tied up in local and state politics and bureaucracies. A dark period in franchise history to be sure.
We know now that through some pain and patience, pretty much everything went right for the Pens. The NHL broke their players through a lockout and negotiated a salary cap, smaller markets could compete. Lottery balls bounced the right way and Pittsburgh was #blessed with generational talents. The new arena was finally agreed upon and built. Three Stanley Cups have followed.
For Lemieux, 2002 was the last moments of glory for him on the ice in his magnificent career. Mario put a bow on his career with an Olympic gold medal in February and then scored this highlight reel goal. From 1/1/2003 to his eventual retirement in December 2005, Mario would only play 66 more games and score just 18 goals and add 40 assists in a mostly forgettable time on a bad team.
But on a December night 15 years ago, the coming storm was avoided for one night with Mario giving one more special moment of greatness.