PHILADELPHIA -- For a minute, it was just Mario Lemieux and the crowd.
He stood along the boards before the national anthem was even sung last night, and tried to ignore the wave of noise that plunged from the Spectrum balcony to the ice.
For years, Lemieux was the stranger in the toughest hockey town of all, but on this night, in this arena, all he heard were cheers, and finally, all he could do was look into the stands, wave his stick, and acknowledge the tribute.
Hockey's greatest star was back, returning not from injury, but Hodgkin's disease.
After nearly two months of medical uncertainty, 22 radiation treatments, one delayed flight and one hastily arranged trip aboard a chartered jet, Lemieux finally played a game of hockey.
And he was wonderful.
But the score and the statistics were footnotes. This was about Lemieux bringing his considerable presence back into hockey.
This was about a superstar who underwent one last radiation treatment in the morning and scored his 40th goal in the evening.
"Every time you have an injury like this or cancer or anything like this, you have to have a lot of courage, and if you don't, you won't win the battle," Lemieux said. "But it's in my nature to fight back."
Lemieux, 27, unloaded boom-boom shots, skated with that familiar loping gait, and made all of the terrific passes. And for a few hours it was as if the previous 52 days hadn't happened.
But, of course, they had.
"It's crazy how you can even imagine what he did in this game," said Lemieux's linemate, Kevin Stevens. "There's only one person in the world who could have done this, and I'm talking about any sport."
This was Super Mario, at his best, surviving a personal nightmare.
Lemieux last played Jan. 5, when he left a 6-2 Penguins' victory over the Boston Bruins due to back pain. He was found to have Hodgkin's disease three days later, after a small cancerous lymph node was removed from his neck.
And then he underwent radiation therapy beginning in early February, receiving 20 high-level doses and two low-level doses, the last five-minute treatment ending yesterday morning at 7:30.
Doctors have said that Lemieux's disease is 95 percent curable. And unlike most patients, Lemieux streaked through most of the radiation without the familiar side effects of nausea, weight loss and fatigue.
"The last 10 days have been difficult," Lemieux said. "I couldn't skate. I couldn't ride the bike."
But here's the good news: according to Lemieux, his doctors have told him he is in remission.
"I wanted to come back and put everything behind me," he said.
And he did. This wasn't about money -- Lemieux makes $42 million over seven years. It wasn't even about ego.
It was simply a man coming back to work, performing in front of 17,380 fans.
Yesterday, after the final treatment, Lemieux and team publicist Cindy Himes rushed to Pittsburgh International Airport for the short flight to Philadelphia. But after their initial USAir flight was delayed, they scooted aboard a six-seat charter jet.
When Lemieux rejoined his teammates in Philadelphia, he was met by a cluster of mini-cam wielding technicians.
But he was back, and that was all that mattered.
Without Lemieux for 23 games, the Penguins went 11-10-2 yet still held the Patrick Division lead.
With Lemieux in the lineup, though, the Penguins displayed their familiar brash, wide-open style.
Wearing a black turtleneck shirt to cover burn marks on his neck, Lemieux took five shifts in the first period without doing any damage.
But with his team trailing 3-1 to open the second period, he got untracked. Lemieux fired a 20-foot shot that beat Flyers goaltender Dominic Roussel to the short side to bring the Penguins to within 3-2 with 18:06 left in the period.
He left the ice with a big smile and the crowd roared.
"That goal felt good," he said.
Lemieux added his assist 1:35 later, helping set up Scott Stevens for the tying goal at 3-3.
In the third period, Lemieux was again in the middle of the action. But the Flyers took advantage of the end-to-end action, as Garry Galley scored the game-winner on a 30-foot slap shot that beat Penguins goaltender Tom Barrasso with 3:33 left.
Lemieux had one last chance to tie it, but his 10-foot wrist shot with 1:05 left on a power play was snuffed out by the Flyers' second goaltender, Tommy Soderstrom.
As the teams left the ice, the crowd was again up and roaring. But this time, the cheers were for the Flyers and their one-night goaltending star, Soderstrom.
Lemieux and the Penguins didn't win, but it didn't matter.
Hockey's greatest star was back.