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Recapping Mario Lemieux’s third return to the Penguins in 2000

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The Penguins played against Toronto at the Igloo that fateful night. It didn’t matter if the Penguins were playing the 1977 Canadiens, the Pens weren’t losing this game.

Toronto Maple Leafs v Pittsburgh Penguins Photo by Craig Melvin/NHLI via Getty Images

When the schedule makers unveiled the 2000-01 NHL schedule, there probably weren’t a lot of people who circled the game between the Pittsburgh Penguins and Toronto Maple Leafs on December 27, 2000 as a can't miss game. However, the whispers of Mario Lemieux’s third comeback became a reality when the Penguins took down his #66 hanging in the rafters so he could once again wear the skating Penguin jersey and the rest, as they say, is history.

Since there’s no hockey being played basically in the entire world right now, let’s watch that game again and get all the feels once again.

Ladies and gentlemen, Mario Lemieux:

Despite having a pretty promising looking roster of forwards, the Penguins were on the wrong side of .500 and were 15-14-6-1 heading in that game. Toronto was coming in 18-11-4-3 but were losers in five out of six games since beating the Penguins 7-4 on December 13th.

The goalie matchup was familiar face Curtis Joseph in net for Toronto and future Islanders GM Garth Snow in net for Pittsburgh. CuJo was 16-10-3 on the year with a .914 sv% and 2.32 GAA. Snow was 8-10-4 with a .900 sv% and 3.03 GAA.

The Penguins had quite an assortment of forwards with the comeback of Mario Lemieux, and their lineup looked something like this:

Jan Hrdina - Mario Lemieux - Jaromir Jagr

Martin Straka - Robert Lang - Alexei Kovalev

Josef Beranek - Milan Kraft - Toby Petersen

Darius Kasparaitis - Ian Moran

Janne Laukkanen - Hans Jonsson

Jeff Norton - Jiri Slegr

Michal Rozsival

Garth Snow

1st Period

Mario Lemieux took the opening faceoff flanked by Jan Hrdina and Jaromir Jagr and after an icing off the opening faceoff by the Penguins, the Pens cashed in big time. Jagr knocks down a clearing attempt from Curtis Joseph near the faceoff circle along the boards and Jagr immediately sends it back behind the net to Lemieux who backhands a puck towards Jan Hrdina in front of the crease as Jagr crashes the net and the puck is in the net only 33 seconds in!

My initial reaction was a distinct kick from Hrdina, but the replay shows that Jagr gets there before the puck hits Hrdina’s skate and jams in the rebound as he is wiped out from behind and into the post and the net becomes dislodged.

The refs went to a video review (the NHL started video reviews early in the 1990s) and it was confirmed that it was Jagr’s stick that sent the puck into the net and the cage was still attached as the puck goes in. Good goal. Only 33 seconds into the game and the big man himself gets his first point on his first shift. Sound familiar? Jan Hrdina picks up the primary assist as the puck hits his skate before Jagr buries the rebound.

That was just an appetizer for the kind of night Lemieux was going to have.

The Maple Leafs get over the initial shock of being the first victim of Lemieux in the new millennium and start to get their feet under them immediately after the Pens goal. They throw a few quick chances towards Garth Snow who desperately sends them away.

Side note - it’s incredible how much different goalies look and play nowadays. There was no awkward trapezoid back then giving the goalies freedom to roam, and CuJo definitely was taking advantage of it in this game - much more than Snow.

Both goalies looked like high school kids by today’s goalie pad standards. Their leg pads were barely much more than beefed up pads the skaters wore, quite contrary to today’s goalies who look more like they’re closer to diffusing a bomb than playing hockey. Not a gripe, just quite a vast difference from the game over the last two decades.

Just over six minutes into the 1st period, the Penguins get the first power play of the game when Garry Valk high sticks Darius Kasparaitis and gets the gate for a double minor. That also brought us to our first commercial break and it was stroll down memory lane for yinzers like me that even had a fresh and young-faced Dan Potash.

The game resumes from that nostalgic commercial break and the refs drop the puck where the Leafs player touched it last which is how the league rolled back then for some reason.

You could see the rust on the Pens first power play shift with Lemieux back as they had some glorious chances as a unit but were just a tad bit off.

The second unit comes out and Jan Hrdina deflects a shot/pass from the slot into a yawning cage but the shot hits the post. The Penguins control possession the entire power play without a single whistle since the power play began until the Penguins ice the puck with 34 seconds left and the broadcast cuts to Lemieux who is visibly trying to catch his breath on the bench.

With the power play coming to an end, Martin Straka sends a puck back to Alexei Kovalev at his usual position on the blue line and he patiently advances the puck until he gets both Leafs defenders to bail out and he overpowers Joseph with a shot from the edge of the faceoff circle and the Penguins cash in early again, this time on the power play. Assists to Straka and Janne Laukkanen.

Lemieux worked some more magic on his next shift with Hrdina and Jagr. Lemieux forced a turnover and the trio went to work peppering Joseph with glorious chance after glorious chance.

As the Pens forwards are doing their damage, Leafs forward Tie Domi and Darius Kasparaitis meet along the boards and Kaspar gets the worst of that collision. Domi wasn’t finished and continued to harass Kaspar which results in the second call of the game against Toronto as Domi goes to box for roughing.

Ten seconds into the power play, Mario Lemieux is given time and space, and Mario will never forget what to do with that as he fires a slap shot from a bad angle that still manages to rip off the cross bar. You could just see everything he touched in this game was turning to gold.

Jagr does some fancy stick and skate work and fires a shot off Joseph’s mask and the play is blown dead as it the strap breaks and he needs some repair work. Shots 12-2 at that point and it felt like it, too. Pens don’t do much with the power play after that shot, however, and the Leafs kill it off.

The Leafs catch the Penguins in an unfortunate position when a Pens defender gets knocked down in the offensive zone which springs the Leafs the other direction on a 2 on 1. Alexei Kovalev hustles back to take away the shooter but Ian Moran gives his man all the space he could ask for and he fires a pass to the streaking shooter, but Kovy is also asleep at the wheel, and Toronto gets a shot off that fortunately hits the post and the game remains 2-0.

(These commercials are amazing. I definitely remember some of these still and probably haven’t seen them in 20 years.)

Jagr has Joseph nearly dead to rights again and sends the pass over to Hrdina but CuJo does his best Dominik Hasek impression and tumbles and falls and looks chaotic the entire time, but manages to stay between the puck and the net and the Pens are denied another great chance. It could easily be 5-0 already, but the Pens will take 2-0 regardless.

Jagr makes a lazy pass minutes later with just under three minutes in the 1st period and the Leafs almost make the Penguins pay with their first good chance of the game that Snow turns aside and also is there for the rebound as well. Hans Jonsson throws a chicken wing out that connects with Darcy Tucker’s head as the play goes the other way and Jonsson gets the call for interference.

The Leafs get a couple good looks but nothing really materializes and the Penguins kill the penalty and the clock ticks down to zero in Lemieux's first period of this millennium.

2nd Period

The Leafs come out much stronger to begin the 2nd period but continued to come up empty. Neither team really takes an advantage for the first several minutes but the two teams trade plenty of big hits that would result in the obligatory fight and/or instigator penalty you would see in today’s game.

If you were wondering why the Penguins only had nine forwards, and Rozsival only played three minutes, it’s because that’s how head coach Ivan Hlinka did things back then in back-to-back games such as this one.

Aleksey Morozov and Kip Miller were both dressed and on the bench according to Mike Lange and Ed Olczyk on the broadcast (you can see Miller's #37 in the main article picture and Morozov can be seen on the bench next to backup Rich Parent during the game), and at that point Rozsival had not played in the game. Definitely another drastic change in the game from then and now.

The Penguins began to get more momentum on another Lemieux line shift, but Pittsburgh ran into trouble at the end of that shift in the defensive zone as the Leafs caught the Penguins in an odd-man advantage and got close in on Snow who made a big save to bail out the team in front of him and deny the Leafs on their best chance of the game to that point.

Hans Jonsson was caught flat-footed and threw his stick out in desperation and tripped the Leafs forward following the save from Snow and the Leafs get their second power play of the game.

The powerplay got off to a hectic start with the Leafs getting the puck immediately to the Penguins net, but they were once again denied by Snow.

Kovalev retrieved the loose puck and raced the other way with Straka (that’d be a handful to deal with on the PP) and Kovy feeds Straka just inside the zone for a rocket of a shot that Joseph turns aside and the Leafs race back to the Penguins end just in the first 20 seconds of the power play.

The Leafs recollect themselves and Garth Snow makes a desperation attempt to make a save but is bailed out by the post and the Leafs remain scoreless. The power play chaos simmers down some but Gary Roberts and Ian Moran are exchanging pleasantries behind the net and Snow has to maneuver around their scrum to retrieve his goalie stick along the boards and the Penguins kill of their second penalty of the game and Garth Snow is now up to 12 saves in the game.

The Leafs ice the puck and the game goes to commercial, another reminder of a subtle change from then and now that the NHL definitely made the correct call on as they no longer go to commercial breaks on icing calls.

Yet another blast from the past as the Penguins marketing back then had commercials with player biographies. This dandy featured Kovalev from Togliatti, Russia as he talks about what it was like training as a kid.

The commercial ended with Steiggy’s first appearance of the broadcast as the commercial finished with his voice-over selling Pens fans on the marketing campaign of “World Class players with a Pittsburgh accent.” Not their best work but also not their worst.

The game moves along and the Lemieux line goes to work once again eight minutes into the 2nd. After Lemieux nearly went through all five Leafs players on his own before getting tripped and losing possession, Hrdina breaks up an outlet pass from Toronto and the puck comes right to Lemieux in alone on Joseph who denies Lemieux on the chance but Jagr sends home a loose puck in the crease for his second goal of the game!

But it’s immediately waved off as Lemieux went crashing into the crease and knocked Joseph into the net. Lemieux got some help from Gary Roberts without a doubt, but it’s pretty clear that Lemieux barrels Joseph into the net. That would definitely be reviewed today and probably would have the same result. Still 2-0 Penguins but the game is still very heavily favored towards Pittsburgh at that point.

Mario Lemieux made no doubt about the outcome seconds after a commercial break just past the midway point in the game with one of his most iconic moments ever in his incredible career. I knew it was coming and it still gave me chills watching it live again.

Lemieux feeds Jagr with a perfect cross-ice outlet pass (Edzo and Lange point out earlier that Lemieux is the best long distance passer of all-time) and Jagr carries the mail (Lange-ism) all the way to the far faceoff dot before jamming on the brakes and feeding Lemieux, who was streaking in after making the initial pass to Jagr, and Lemieux wasted no time doing what he does best - terrorizing the opponent no matter who/what it is.

Just an absolutely picture perfect play from Lemieux to Jagr to Lemieux and a picture perfect goal from Lemieux. You may have heard the collective goal celebration coming from western Pennsylvania in the deepest and darkest depths of the Earth. I remember going B-A-N-A-N-A-S. Gretzky may have all the records, but Lemieux has the greatest story. He’s as good as it gets.

“He’s so indescribable, it’s scary.” said Mike Lange as the refs dropped the puck following the goal. Truer words have never been spoken.

The Leafs hit the post for the third time following the Lemieux goal, but the Penguins smelled blood and still put the pedal all the way to the floor.

The Lemieux line came out after an icing call and once again Jaromir Jagr put on a hockey clinic. First he stops on a dime and leaves Tomas Kaberle with two broken ankles and a bad case of inflamed pride muscles. Jagr then sends the puck to the slot but that gets intercepted. However, Jagr doesn’t give up on the play and hounds Bryan McCabe of the Leafs and Jagr swiftly lifts his stick as Mario pounces on the puck and instantly throws it to Hrdina in front who buries a backhander that would make Sidney Crosby blush and the lid completely blows off of The Igloo. It’s pandemonium. I remember watching this game and losing my mind when I was 11 years old, but this is the best game I think I have ever seen the Penguins play.

That made it three points for Lemieux in his first game back. And he didn’t stop scoring until he turned 40. Lemieux finished second in the Hart voting that year and only played 43 games yet finished with 35 goals and 41 assists. At 35 years old. And not playing in the NHL for nearly four years. How is that even possible?

A few minutes after the Penguins fourth goal, Kasparaitis swooped in front of Curtis Joseph and Kaspar collided with CuJo, again with some help from Toronto, which raised the temperature in the game a little. Cooler heads prevailed.

Shortly after that disagreement Kovalev and Straka get a break on a 2 on 1 but Kovalev couldn’t get a clean pass across and Straka hits the outside of the cage with a deflection off his body that almost made it 5-0.

Then Jagr almost makes it 5-0 shortly after that after Kasparaitis jumps in front of a Toronto outlet attempt and tumbles and falls but manages to get the puck to the net and Jagr nearly goes around Joseph with the puck but runs out of real estate on the goal line and shoots the puck through the crease.

A young and hulking Nik Antropov (6’6, 245 lbs) makes a big splash late in the 2nd period when Martin Straka over-skates a shot attempt and the Leafs find Antropov in the neutral zone and he explodes past the Pens defenders alone on Snow who makes a huge glove save to keep the shutout bid alive. That was the Leafs most exciting play of the game and the Penguins came out on top, yet again.

The Leafs continue to pressure the Pens in the Pittsburgh zone and the Pens make a mental mistake and get called for too many men on the ice with just under a minute left in the 2nd period.

The Leafs then made the most horrendous turnover on the Pens blue line with less than 10 seconds remaining as Jagr reads the D-to-D pass from Toronto and has a 125 foot breakaway with time ticking down and he wrists the puck past Joseph with three seconds left in the 2nd period for his first shorthanded goal of the year and second goal of the game to make it 5-0 Penguins heading into the final period.

The Penguins could not have played a better game in Mario’s return. Complete domination.

Third Period

The Leafs come out in the 3rd period down by five but with just over a minute left on their power play. The Leafs get a good chance early but that gets turned away by Snow.

As the case has been the entire night while shorthanded, Kovalev retrieves the rebound and breaks in the Toronto zone and gets a quality chance that Joseph makes a good save on. The Leafs don’t get much going after that and the Penguins kill their third straight penalty.

Two minutes into the 3rd period Jiri Slegr gets way too aggressive and clotheslines Tie Domi to the ice after Snow covers up a shot and freezes the puck. Domi gets up to handle business himself but the refs intervene before Domi can get to Slegr. Slegr gets the call for roughing.

Toronto once again doesn’t do much with the power play, great PKing by the Pens in this game, but Domi gets a chance to confront Slegr a minute after he’s freed from the penalty box and the two drop the gloves at center ice.

Slegr lands several clean shots at first but Domi certainly got the better of Slegr in the end. Domi gets Slegr in a vulnerable position with Slegr’s jersey over his face and Domi lands at least three heavy blows to Slegr’s head and leaves him slightly bloodied but no worse for wear which is a win in itself against Domi for a young Jiri Slegr.

Slegr answered the bell for his high hit from minutes earlier and nothing more would come from this battle. That’s the way it used to be.

The Penguins seem content to play smart defensively the final period, which makes sense up 5-0. Mario is getting less and less shifts, which also adds up with the Penguins ahead 5-0 in his first game in several years.

The Leafs continue to throw many shots towards Snow, who turns them all away.

The FSN broadcast gives us a classic “Subway Sandwich of the Game” and this one came via Toronto on Janne Laukkanen of the Pens. Looked an awful lot like a charge as the Leafs player very cleary jumps into the hit and levels Laukkanen. The refs weren't very popular back then, either.

Michal Rozsival makes a surprise appearance due to Slegr being in the box for his fighting major. He skates around for three minutes of ice time in the game and plays well enough to not get scored on. He does get one great chance on a pass from behind the net from Straka that may have glanced off the post.

It’s still a little surprising to have Morozov and Miller sitting on the bench up 5-0. But Ivan Hlinka clearly had no intentions on using them in this game. And the Pens clearly didn’t need them, either.

Garth Snow makes his most difficult saves of the period at the nine minute mark when the Leafs get a great a look off a faceoff and then get another quick 3 on 1 fifteen seconds later off a neutral zone turnover from Lemieux. The Penguins get their own odd man break from the Snow save and Joseph comes up large on at the other end.

With seven minutes left Hans Jonsson gets a bit roughed up from future (old man) Penguin Gary Roberts. Roberts takes Jonsson hard into the corner boards and it appears that Jonsson’s visor causes a cut above his right eye. The play continues on, however, and Jonsson then runs into his own net and knocks it off the pegs which resulted in a delay of game penalty to go along with the punishment dished out from Roberts. He was left covered in blood and also penalized. His third penalty of the game. Hockey is tough.

That was a very unfortunate shift from Jonsson. But fortunately for the Penguins, they kill off the penalty and make it a perfect five for five on the penalty kill.

The Leafs continue to control puck possession in the game as Jagr does his best to get the hat trick and his fifth point of the game but can’t quite get there. Garth Snow doesn’t break and makes 40 saves in the game for his second shutout of the year and 11th of his career that night.

The clock continues to tick down until it reaches double zero on Mario’s third comeback with the Penguins and the fans give him a standing ovation as he exits the ice. And once again as he was named first star of the game.

Game Notes

  • The Penguins came into this game 15-14-6-1 and went 27-14-3-2 the rest of the way with Mario Lemieux. They finished 42-28-9-3 and finished third in the Atlantic Division.
  • Jaromir Jagr had one of his finest seasons with Pittsburgh that year, putting up 52 goals and 69 assists to win the Art Ross Trophy and finish third in the Hart voting behind Joe Sakic and Lemieux. He recorded his 1,000th point in the Penguins next game on December 30, 2000 against Ottawa, and Mario recorded his 1,500th point in the same game.
    Sadly that was his last year with the Penguins as he was traded to the Capitals that summer. He put the Penguins on his back for the three years Mario was inactive. It was fitting he left as team captain even after Mario returned.
  • Pittsburgh became very active in the trade market after this game. They picked up veteran Marc Bergevin the next day after this game and added Steve McKenna, Kevin Stevens, Krzysztof Oliwa, Wayne Primeau, Dan LaCouture and then the most important of all - Johan Hedberg. That’s a lot of muscle added and the Pens also scored big with the acquisition of Hedberg.
  • Hedberg came onto the scene and quickly became a fan favorite due to his bright blue Manitoba Moose helmet that earned him “The Moose” nickname that stuck with him until he retired.
    Hedberg backstopped the Penguins to playoff wins against Washington in the first round in six games.
    He then beat the Sabres in Games 6 and 7 in overtime after the Penguins dropped games 3, 4 and 5. Game 7 was won on the famous Kasparaitis shot from the blue line that beat Hall of Fame goalie Dominik Hasek
    But the Penguins ran into a buzzsaw known as the New Jersey Devils in the Eastern Conference Finals and were defeated in five games and scored only three goals in the four losses against Martin Brodeur.
  • Speaking of Kasparaitis, how legendary was he? He only scored 15 goals in 405 games with Pittsburgh, plus two in 38 playoff games, but he was basically the only memorable defenseman besides Kevin Hatcher during his six seasons with Pittsburgh. It was his team at this point in time defensively. His overtime goal on Hasek that season has to be one of the most unlikely moments of all time in the NHL.
  • This was the last winning season in Pittsburgh until 2006-07 when they returned to the playoffs with Sidney Crosby and Co., six years later.
    That ended the Penguins streak of 11 straight playoff seasons that began with the back-to-back Stanley Cups in 1991 and 1992.
  • If you’re still bored, you can watch the postgame with Dan Potash and Rob King from Y2K. It’s actually pretty entertaining and you can hear from the big guy himself with his post game press conference.
  • Thanks for reading! Stay safe and Let's Go Pens!