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Story time with Gretz: Mario Lemieux’s face-off goal

Looking back at one of Mario Lemieux’s most underrated goals.

Lemieux looks on Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images/NHLI

With the 2019-20 NHL season on hiatus I am going to spend my Tuesday’s with my friends here at PensBurgh digging into my personal memory bank and hockey memorabilia to share some fun randomness with you.

Stories from games I attended. Random giveaways. Obscure hockey cards.

Basically anything that seems even remotely fun.

Consider this Storytime with Gretz.

Today’s entry: Mario Lemieux’s face-off goal from Dec. 23, 2002, one of my favorite in-person memories.

There was not much to like about the 2002-03 season as a Penguins fan. It was right in the middle of the complete organizational teardown, and it was pretty much the last time we saw Mario Lemieux play at the top of his game. Honestly, we probably do not make enough of this season from him. He had 91 points, in only 67 games, as a 37-year-old at the height of the NHL’s dead puck era. That is an insane season.

The highlight of that season came in a run-of-the-mill regular season game in late December when the Buffalo Sabres were in town. It was the night Lemieux scored one of his signature goals when he did this off of a third period faceoff to give the Penguins a 3-2 lead on their way to what would be, quite honestly, a meaningless win in a lost season.

But still. This goal!

I was home from college (IUP) on Christmas break when my one of my best high school friends (Corey Cauffiel) called me the day of the game and asked if I wanted to go to the Pens game that night. Naturally, I did.

This was in the days before StubHub, while the only second hand ticket market was a guy on the sidewalk with a fistful of tickets trying to sell you some as you walked in.

We ended up stopping at the TicketMaster outlet (this was a thing) at Giant Eagle in Greensburg about an hour before puck drop and bought the cheapest tickets we could get our hands on to get in the building. We ended up getting E-Level “obstructed view” seats and somehow made it to the game on time. When we arrived in our seats we quickly realized what “obstructed view” meant. We were in the last row of the balcony, in the corner, tucked underneath the overhang of the F-Level balcony and, if you saw straight up and in a perfectly normal position, could only see the net and faceoff circle directly in front of us. Other net? Blocked. Other faceoff circle in our end of the ice? Blocked. You had to crouch down as far as you could to see anything else other than that small square of ice directly in front of us.

It made for an interesting night.

At one point in the first period we started scouting out seats elsewhere in the building that looked to be empty in an effort to move down closer, but nothing ever really stood out.

So we stayed in our original seats.

The Penguins went into the third period trailing, 2-1, until Alex Kovalev tied the game midway though the third period (had to look up the time, my memory is good — not THAT good). Then, just two minutes later, it happened.

Lemieux lined up in the only face-off circle on the ice that we could see unobstructed, in front of the only net we could see, and cleanly beat Martin Biron directly off the face-off for the eventual game-winning goal. Had it happened in any other faceoff circle I am not sure that I would have seen it.

It was so cool to me because it was one of the only times I was ever able to actually see Lemieux play in person. I never had a chance to go to a lot of Penguins games growing up (maybe one per year), and when I did, he was either sitting out the year, sick, or injured. Or retired. It all played out so perfectly for this goal.