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Original Issue


Mario Who?

Know this about Penguin owner Howard Baldwin: When the going got tough, he did not woo Mike Keenan. He did not order a fire sale of his aging, high-salaried roster. Nor did he try to shake down the city of Pittsburgh for a handout when playoff revenue dried up and fan support sagged. Instead, Baldwin, to the surprise of many of his own players, did very little at all.

Spared a roster shake-up after a second straight early exit from the playoffs following the team's 1991 and '92 Cup championships, the Penguins have charged out of the chute to a 10-0-1 mark as of Sunday, the franchise's best start in its 28-year history. They have done it with the same graying cast that went belly-up against Washington in last spring's playoffs.

"Time is running out," says defenseman Ulf Samuelsson. "We're getting older, and the payroll is high [about $20 million]. We understand we can't live off the two Stanley Cups forever."

Herewith are the major reasons for the Penguin revival:

•The savvy of general manager Craig Patrick. One day before the Pens were eliminated by Washington, the team held a players-only meeting and addressed the possibility of an impending roster shake-up. "It was like planning your own funeral," says one Penguin.

However, where some players saw a dying dynasty, Patrick, one of the game's shrewdest minds, saw a nucleus fit enough to make another run at the Cup. With Baldwin's blessings, Patrick refused to dismantle the roster during the off-season, trading only forward Rick Tocchet to Los Angeles for forward Luc Robitaille, who averages 49 goals a season.

Later Patrick filled out his roster by reacquiring two former Penguins, center John Cullen and defenseman Chris Joseph, discarded veterans who have responded with strong starts.

•The absence of Mario Lemieux. When Lemieux, suffering from chronic fatigue after cancer treatments, announced in August that he would sit out this season, his teammates understood they would have to fend for themselves.

Settling snugly into Lemieux's former role as The Franchise has been Jaromir Jagr, 23, who signed a five-year, $19.5 million contract last summer. At week's end Jagr had 20 points and—along with center Ron Francis (19 points) and goalie Ken Wregget (who has played every minute of all 11 games)—had spearheaded the club's explosive launch. "He's the best forward in the game," says Islander coach Lorne Henning. "Now he's showing the ability to take over games on a nightly basis."

•The patience of Baldwin. The Penguins' success during the early '90s represents the crowning achievement of Baldwin's 23 years in the game. Having survived several lean years as an owner of the Whalers from 1971 to 1988, he is loath to return to the old days.

Baldwin likes to recall his first season with the Whalers, who then played their home games at Boston Garden in the World Hockey Association. Behind $50,000 on the rent to then Garden landlord Weston W. Adams, the Whalers were packing the team vans to leave for a playoff game when Adams ordered the Garden's Zamboni driver to block the vans from leaving the building. "The Zamboni might have stayed there forever, except Westie later discovered that the Zamboni was also blocking in his Corvette," says Baldwin.

The hard lessons of those years helped whet Baldwin's appetite for success. Winning the Cup did the rest. "When you've tasted success, there really is no turning back," he says. "In this age, in this small market, you can't burn down the house and start all over. This is a team designed to win the Stanley Cup now."

Out of the Woods

Certainly the road least traveled to the NHL must include that taken by 29-year-old Flame wing German Titov, who at week's end had nine goals and has been one of the early-season surprises.

Conscripted into the Soviet Red Army at 18, Titov was not given the plum officer assignments lavished upon his native land's most talented young hockey players. Instead he spent three years in an artillery division, an assignment Flame coach Dave King once likened to "doing time on a chain gang."

Paid seven rubles (then roughly $14) a month, Titov did not even touch skates for the three years—1983 to '86—he was in the army. Tethered to a military base, where he often lived in a tent, Titov passed most of his time doing sentry duty against imaginary enemies. "We had to guard our buildings," he says. "We were just watching."

But few were watching him. Upon leaving the army, he rejoined Khimik, a mediocre team in the Soviet National League, and spent six seasons in relative anonymity. However, while touring Canada with Khimik in the late 1980s, Titov caught the eye of King, who was then coaching the Canadian national team. After a successful season in Finland in 1992, Titov was taken by the Flames with the 252nd pick in the 1993 entry draft.

With star Calgary center Joe Nieuwendyk stewing over his contract, center Robert Reichel off to a slow start after a brief preseason holdout, and right wing Theo Fleury just getting over the flu, Titov has emerged as the Flames' best forward. He attributes his fast start to his grueling regimen during the lockout, during which he returned to Finland for two months and played for old coach Vladimir Yurzinov.

"When you go to play under a Russian coach, you have nothing else to do but play hockey," says Titov, who scored 27 goals last year. "We had practices twice a day. We lifted weights. I was so busy, all I did was go home and sleep."

Return to Rare Form

While the first month of the season belonged to the goalie (page 58), two once productive but recently forgotten scorers were enjoying a resurgence:

•Bernie Nicholls. At week's end the three-time All-Star had seven goals and nine assists in 11 games and had given the Blackhawks the offense-minded second-line center they long coveted to complement Jeremy Roenick.

Signed as an unrestricted free agent in August after spending a season and a half in New Jersey, Nicholls, 33, has flourished in a system that favors an aggressive forechecking scheme. During the '88-89 season, Nicholls, then with the Kings, became only the fifth player in league history to score 70 goals in a season. However, his production bottomed out last season at 19 goals and a career-low 46 points. How far had he fallen? Only last February, Nicholls and a reporter were commiserating over the snaillike pace with which Nicholls was approaching the 1,000-point mark when teammate Alexander Semak inquired what the two were chatting about. After being told that Nicholls was within striking distance of reaching that milestone, Semak looked at Nicholls increduously and asked, "You?"

•Adam Creighton. A recent underachiever, Creighton was acquired by Blue coach and general manager Mike Keenan from the Lightning last fall. At week's end Creighton had scored six goals in the Blues' first 11 games while centering the team's top line.

The 29-year-old Creighton enjoyed his best season while playing for Keenan in Chicago from 1988 to '91 but gradually fell into disfavor with Keenan because of poor work habits. Traded to the Islanders in October 1991, and claimed by Tampa Bay in the 1992 waiver draft, Creighton was buried near the bottom of the Lightning depth chart. "Really, I would have played anywhere else after last season," says Creighton. "But I was very excited when Mike picked me up. It took me a couple of seasons to accept it, but he is the one coach who has been able to bring the best out of me."



Lemieux (above right) once made Baldwin smile; now Jagr (far left) is the Penguins' main man.



[See caption above.]



A notable underachiever in Tampa and elsewhere, Creighton isn't blue about being a Blue.