By Mark Madden
Beaver County Times
February 6, 2012
The hockey world went nuts when Edmonton's Sam Gagner notched an eight-point game Thursday. Four goals, four assists: A point on every Oilers goal in an 8-4 win over Chicago.
Eight-point games were once a habit for Mario Lemieux.
Before Gagner, the last NHL player to notch an eight-point game was Lemieux. He did it three times in 1988-89, his 199-point season. That was Lemieux pre-back surgery, pre-cancer. That was Lemieux with a shake-and-bake that looked both foreign and magnificent for a man standing 6-foot-4.
That was Lemieux at his very best.
Lemieux's first eight-point game was Oct. 15, 1988. Two goals, six assists at home vs. St. Louis. That psychologically clinched the scoring title. How can you beat that? Lemieux ultimately won the Art Ross Trophy by 31 points.
His second eight-point game was Dec. 31, 1988. Five goals, three assists at home vs. New Jersey. It's a night better remembered for five goals, five ways: Even strength, power play, shorthanded, penalty shot, empty net. So unique, no one realized it was a big deal until well after the fact. Like Gagner, Lemieux got a point on every Penguins goal.
His third eight-point game was April 25, 1989. Five goals, three assists in a 10-7 home playoff win vs. Philadelphia. Perhaps the most overwhelming performance of Lemieux's career. Flyers goalie Ron Hextall couldn't attack Mario. Too low-rent. So Hextall attacked Rob Brown instead.
Lemieux ended the year with 85 goals and 114 assists. Yet, he somehow finished second in MVP voting to Wayne Gretzky, who had 31 less points on 31 less goals. It remains a remarkable injustice, one that still angers.
The prevailing "wisdom" was that Gretzky had engineered a turnaround of the Kings during his first season in Los Angeles. The Kings made the playoffs, but lost in the second round. The Penguins did exactly the same. Exactly how was Gretzky more valuable? Mario's Penguins had a much rougher road to respectability than Gretzky's Kings. Ultimately, Mario's Penguins accomplished more.
The voters changed the rules on Lemieux. The Hart Trophy usually goes to the best player. Except that time. Absurd.
Lemieux once said that he measured himself by Stanley Cups and scoring titles, because "nobody votes on those." Amen.
Back problems mounted after 1988-89. Lemieux lost agility. So he reinvented himself, substituting craft for boogie. He got a lot done, just in a different fashion. That reinvention refined itself further when Mario came out of retirement in 2000.
There seems little doubt that Lemieux would have had a few 200-point seasons, maybe even a 100-goal campaign, had physical problems not intervened. That would have been nice, but conquering his back, and cancer, burnished his legend. Made him noble. Gave him a story beyond stats.
There wasn't a ton of hockey on television then. Not a ton of tape exists of Mario at his absolute best.
But what Gagner did once, Lemieux did thrice in one season. And he had countless other nights operating at or near that level. Lemieux had a seven-point game, a six-point game and eight five-point games in 1988-89.
That's 77 points in 13 games. It seems impossible.
You've got to give Gagner credit. On Saturday, he got points on Edmonton's first three goals and netted in the shootout as the Oilers beat Detroit, 5-4. Gagner got points on 11 straight goals.
That young man has a sense for the occasion. Not unlike his predecessor in eight-point glory.
Mark Madden hosts a radio show 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WXDX-FM (105.9).