NEW YORK -- Defensemen poke him, hook him and chop at his stick. They muscle him and slam him against the boards. But the Pittsburgh Penguins' Mario Lemieux doesn't flinch. He doesn't even seem to notice.
He is in his own zone.
It is a heady place, a place where $42 million contracts serve as inspiration instead of pressure. A place where a 27-year-old man who already has been regular-season and playoff MVP plus a three-time league scoring leader can accomplish even more.
Lemieux, with 26 goals and 35 assists already this season, is on a pace that could challenge Gretzky's 1985-86 league record of 215 points in a season.
Tonight, Lemieux and the Patrick Division-leading Penguins will be at the Capital Centre to face the Washington Capitals at 8:05.
Pittsburgh coach Scotty Bowman, who has seen a few good hockey players while coaching six Stanley Cup champions, says he doesn't try to coach Lemieux.
"You just try to help him," Bowman said. "He plots his own game plan. He's very calculating."
Lemieux, 6 feet 4, 210 pounds, skates almost slowly up and down the ice. Watching, noting every seam, waiting. And then, with a burst of speed, he is suddenly in the midst of everything -- handing out an assist, scoring a goal or breaking up a play.
"I don't think anyone on this team resents Mario getting $42 million," said Penguins defenseman Paul Stanton. "He deserves it. We were all happy when he signed. He puts people in the seats, and he doesn't walk around acting like he makes $42 million. He's really a terrific guy."
"He eats the same food and drinks the same drinks we do," right wing Joe Mullen said. "But when he touches the puck, things happen."
Good things. The Penguins are first in the Patrick Division and have lost just once -- Wednesday night to the New York Rangers -- to a division rival.
Still, for all of his talent, Lemieux is a low-profile superstar.
When the major hockey magazines put out their preseason publications, most of them went without a profile on Lemieux. When Inside Hockey picked the 12 men of power and influence in the NHL, not even Lemieux's $42 million could get him on the list. Gretzky, who has spent his career selling hockey, made it. But Lemieux, whose major contribution to the sport is his play, didn't.
When the Penguins public relations department is asked for time with him, reporters are told: "He doesn't do interviews on the road, and, if you come to Pittsburgh, we can probably get you only 10 minutes with him." Not even Sports Illustrated has been able to get an interview with Lemieux this season.
Some have taken to calling Lemieux "The Silent Killer" for more than one reason.
"He is kind of like that," teammate Rick Tocchet said. "He doesn't seem to be doing anyone any harm out there, and, then with one move, he's gone. His speed is so underrated."
The Penguins love having him on the team. Not only does he raise their game, but also if one of Lemieux's teammates gets in a slump, well, Tocchet said, "No one seems to notice. When I was in Philly and didn't score, every one knew it. Here, there is no pressure with Mario around."
New York Rangers captain Mark Messier rolls his eyes when he is asked about Lemieux.
"He's great to watch, but not so great to play against," Messier said. "He's a very elegant player."
Monday in New York, Lemieux demonstrated that elegance by producing two goals at opportune times -- seemingly out of nowhere.
The first came shortly after New York had closed to 2-1. Lemieux skated slowly up the ice, almost as if he weretaking the puck out for a Sunday stroll, and Rangers defenseman James Patrick met him.
At the top of the circle, Lemieux flicked his wrist, and the puck, like a lightning bolt, streaked between Patrick's legs and then through the pads of goalkeeper Mike Richter for a 3-1 Pittsburgh lead.
In the third period, the Rangers had the momentum and were attacking again. Lemieux got the puck back when it bounced off a Ranger's skate. Like a surgeon with a scalpel, he made a precise cut and slid the puck into the net for a 4-2 lead with 1:28 to go. Lemieux's line mate Tocchet followed with a score into an empty net for the final 5-2 decision.
"When I got traded to Pittsburgh, Mario raised my skill level," Tocchet said. "He puts you in position to do good things -- whether you think you can or not."
Rangers defenseman Jeff Beukeboom said the best place for an opposing player when Lemieux is on the ice "is on the bench."
"He never rushes," Penguins defenseman Stanton said. "I've never seen him in a situation where he appears to be under pressure. In New Jersey the other night, he had the puck at the blue line, and there were two guys waiting for him. Most of us would have been thinking about dumping the puck, but he's thinking, 'How can I get around these guys?' "
Rolling a 200
Mario Lemieux's top scoring total so far has been 199 in 1988-89. On his current pace, though, Lemieux would join Wayne Gretzky as the only NHL player to score 200 points in a season. A look at Lemieux's stats projected over the rest of this season and Gretzky's 200-point seasons:
.. .. .. .. .. .. ..Year.. .. .. .. .. G.. .. .. .. A .. .. ..Pts
Gretzky.. .. .. .. 85-86 .. .. .. .. . 52.. .. .. .. 163.. ....215
Gretzky .. .. .. ..81-82 .. .. .. .. ..92 .. .. .... 120 .. .. 212
Gretzky .. .. .. ..84-85 .. .. .. .. ..73 .. .. .. . 135.. .. 208
*Lemieux .. .. .. .92-93 .. .. .. .. ..89 .. .. .... 119 .... .208
Gretzky .. .. .. . 83-84 .. .. .. .... 87 .. .. .. ..118 .. ...205
*-Projected over entire season