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Lemieux to leave schedule open

| Tuesday, Sept. 4, 2001

Mario Lemieux will use discretion to protect his bothersome back this season, but he is not shutting the door on the possibility that he could play as many as 70-75 games.

His schedule is not official.

'I'm going to leave it open,' Lemieux said after a recent workout at Neville Island.

Lemieux's primary concern is to preserve his back during the rigors of a six-month, 82-game season. That he will err on the side of caution is understandable. He will turn 36 on Oct. 5. Injury and infection have ravaged his back, causing him to miss about 200 games.

At the moment, however, Lemieux's back is in tip-top shape. If it stays that way, he might play in more games than expected.

Asked if he could play as many as 70 or 75 games, Lemieux said: 'Yeah, absolutely. If I feel good, and my back's in good shape, of course, I'd love to play everywhere, but I have to take care of my franchise first and the people who support us.'

That means committing himself to the home games, assuming he is healthy. It also means having a healthy Lemieux come playoff time. One way to ensure that, Lemieux says, is to limit his appearances in the road games on back-to-back nights.

Playing back-to-back nights has caused Lemieux problems. Last season, for example, he regretted his participation in such games at Minnesota, Columbus and Tampa Bay. The travel and the pounding have a cumulative affect.

'That's when I get in trouble, when I play back-to-back,' Lemieux said. 'That's really what happened last year. I tried to please everybody and paid for it in the long run.'

The Penguins have 16 sets of back-to-back games this season, 13 of which include a home game and a road game. Don't expect Lemieux to sit out all those road games. If he did, he'd miss both games at Washington (Dec. 11, 22) against Jaromir Jagr and two games at Philadelphia (Oct. 31, Jan. 29).

The way Lemieux's competitive fire burns, it would take a straitjacket to keep him out of all those games. He doesn't want to limit himself by designating which games he'll sit out.

Every team, of course, wants Lemieux to play in their building. Many use his name to sell tickets. The Carolina Hurricanes put his picture on a billboard last year to market their games against the Penguins. Tampa Bay Lightning ownership called Lemieux to urge him to play at the Ice Palace on March 17, the second game of a back-to-back set.

Lemieux agreed, but he won't let anyone dictate his schedule this season. Teams still will try. The Nashville Predators were peeved when they heard Lemieux might sit out certain road games on back-to-back nights, which could include their match against the Penguins on Nov. 23. They pointed out that Lemieux has yet to play in the Gaylord Entertainment Center and that he surely would want to add it to his list of NHL experiences.

Asked how often teams have called to urge him to play, Lemieux said: 'It's happened a few times. We try to accommodate everybody. ... But, as I said, I just have to make sure that we take care of our franchise first, our fans. That's the way the system works.'

Nashville fans shouldn't lose hope for a Lemieux appearance, if his physical conditioning means anything. He is in perhaps in the best shape of his career, and, unlike last year, will have the benefit of a training camp to prepare for the season.

Lemieux has been working out regularly under the on-ice supervision of former teammate Jay Caufield and the off-ice supervision of back therapist Tom Plasko. He is down to 227 pounds.

'I haven't been 227 since probably my second year in the league,' Lemieux said. 'Last year, I started at 247 my first game and finished (the season) at 235. ... I'm watching my diet a little more, working out more. I tried to cut the fat and eat the good stuff: veggies, protein, not too much pasta or carbs. Keep slim.'

Only time will tell how many games Lemieux plays. Many factors will come into play. If the Penguins start poorly, for example, he might feel compelled to play more. If they start quickly, he will be in a position to be more cautious. The NHL's scoring race could play a role down the stretch, as will the Penguins' position in the playoff race.

In the meantime, Lemieux has joined 33 other players at Team Canada's pre-Olympic mini-camp in Calgary. It runs through Friday. Penguins training camp opens a week from today.

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