If you have been a Penguins fan long enough, you likely do not need a reminder why December 27th is such a significant date in Pittsburgh Penguins history. Mario Lemieux, the greatest player in franchise history, returned to the ice for the first time since retiring from the game over three years earlier.
Rumors of Lemieux’s return to the ice began to arise in the weeks leading up to his comeback when he was spotted working out with former Penguins teammate Jay Caulfield. Those rumors soon became reality on December 27, 2000 against the Toronto Maple Leafs at the Mellon Arena in Pittsburgh where Mario returned to the ice.
In his return, Lemieux recorded three points, including a goal where he buried a cross-ice pass from Jaromir Jagr past Maple Leafs goaltender Curtis Joseph in the second period. Lemieux also recorded assists on a goal from Jagr 33 seconds into the game and another from Jan Hrdina in the second period. The Penguins went on to win the contest 5-0 over the Leafs with Garth Snow getting the shutout for the Penguins.
The game was broadcast nationally on ESPN with the legendary Gary Thorne and Bill Clement on the call. Local affiliate Fox Sports Network also carried the game for the Pittsburgh viewing audience where Mike Lange was on the mic. You can hear his call of Mario’s comeback goal below.
At the point of his return, the Penguins were sitting on a 15-14-6-1 record and potentially out of the playoff picture. Following Lemieux’s return, the Penguins went on a 27-14-3-2 run to close out the season and qualify for the Stanley Cup playoffs with 96 points.
In the playoffs, the Penguins defeated the Capitals in the first round (duh) then eliminated the Buffalo Sabres in the second round on Darius Kasparaitis’ famous overtime goal in Game 7. The Penguins season came to an end in the Eastern Conference Finals where they fell to the New Jersey Devils in five games.
Playing in 43 games for the Penguins in 2000-01, Lemieux totaled an astonishing 76 points, good for fifth on team that season. Jagr led the Penguins with 121 points, winning the Art Ross for the fourth straight year. Mario went on to lead the Penguins in playoff scoring with 17 points and scored a last minute winner in Game 6 against the Sabres to keep the season alive.
Mario continued to play for another four seasons but injuries limited his time on the ice for the rest of his career. His comeback season also marked the final time Mario stepped onto the ice during for the Stanley Cup playoffs. Mario hung up the skates for good during the 2005-06 season.
If you were around to witness Mario’s comeback and the run the team went on for the rest of the year, you surely remember it well. Mario’s return coupled with Jagr’s incredible season, Johan Hedberg’s emergence, and Kasparaitis’ winner provided Penguins fans with a lot of memories before the dark times fell upon the franchise.
This moment is just another chapter in Mario’s legacy in Pittsburgh which includes five Stanley Cup championships, two Conn Smythe trophies, three Hart trophies, six Art Ross trophies, and saving the franchise from certain extinction on several occasions.