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This is what makes Claude Lemieux great: His biological alarm
clock rings each spring, and he goes crazy during the playoffs,
scoring goals in bunches for his team, currently the New Jersey
Devils, and harassing the best forward on the other team -- at the
moment, Eric Lindros of the Philadelphia Flyers -- with a verve
that would get him arrested if he were a civilian.

This is what makes Claude Lemieux grate: He yaps, he jabs, he
occasionally crashes to the ice as if he had been poleaxed, as he
did after the neat skate-by appendectomy Lindros tried to perform
on him with a stick blade last Saturday in Game 1 of the Eastern
Conference finals in Philadelphia. Lemieux and the Devils,
however, won the game 4-1 and seized the home ice advantage in the

The fact is this: What makes the 6'1", 215-pound Lemieux grate is
what makes him great.

Lindros denied he tried to spear Lemieux, but if, for argument's
sake, he had tried to literally get under Lemieux's skin, maybe it
was because Lemieux has made a career of getting under everyone
else's. Think about chalk screeching on a blackboard. Think about
someone who clips his nails in public. Think about a combination
of Dick Vitale and Andy Rooney. Now think about Lemieux, who is as
annoying as an Infomercial.

Of course his team can get pretty tedious itself. The Devils get
an early lead and then squeeze the life out of a game. They opened
the series with that victory over the Flyers by holding Lindros
and his Legion of Doom line to five shots while not permitting a
single Philadelphia odd-man rush at goalie Martin Brodeur. ``Our
mind-set right now is hard checking and being aggressive on the
puck,'' says New Jersey defenseman Bruce Driver, whose team took a
2-0 series lead Monday night with a 5-2 win. The Devils are
strong, disciplined and hypnotic, and should they win the Stanley
Cup, the NHL might be at the yawn of a new era.

Lemieux, who had two assists in Game 2, had just one shot on goal
and no points in Game 1, but he played a typical pot-stirring
match. He held Philly defenseman Petr Svoboda's stick long enough
to allow Randy McKay to swoop in and score the third New Jersey
goal. He delivered angry hits on defensemen Eric Desjardins and
Kevin Haller on the shift after the Lindros spear, and he and
Lindros were asked to sit down for two minutes in the third period
when they drew matching unsportsmanlike-conduct penalties.

``On the ice,'' Devil enforcer Mike Peluso says with admiration,
``Claude's a consistent pain in the ass.''

If the NHL elected an All-Clutch playoff squad, Lemieux would also
be first-team. Since his rookie postseason, in 1986, when he
scored 10 goals in 20 games for the Montreal Canadiens, including
two in overtime, Lemieux has been Mr. May as much as Mr. Mayhem.
During the 1995 regular season he had six goals in 45 games, but
through Monday he had eight in 12 playoff games. Even more
important to the systematic Devils, Lemieux's nagging attention
neutralized Boston Bruin forward Cam Neely in the first round --
Neely scored just two goals -- and his dogged work against the
Pittsburgh Penguins in the conference semifinals helped limit the
fabulous Jaromir Jagr to three. A hockey truism says you can't
just turn it on in the postseason. Yet Lemieux, whose 47 goals
place him among the top 40 career playoff scorers, has flicked the
switch after his least productive season and is now running amok.

``What's amazing is he really is a little-better skater, a
little-better shooter, a little-better stickhandler than he is
during the regular season,'' says Devil defenseman Ken Daneyko.
``Against Pittsburgh he scored two of the prettiest goals you'll
ever see on moves that made him look more like Jagr than Jagr. I
didn't even know he had those moves.''

``Growing up, playing big tournaments in midget and junior, I
seemed to play better in those situations,'' Lemieux says. ``When
I first started in Montreal and we won the Cup, the following
season the emotions were so low compared to the playoffs. I was

Without emotion, Lemieux was just another right wing. But when
riled he becomes an agitator. Sometimes Claude Lemieux can have
almost as much an effect on a game in his nasty, hardscrabble way
as Mario Lemieux (no relation) can have in his elegant way. ``The
first game I played here, he was going nuts,'' says 24-year-old
Bill Guerin, who scored twice for New Jersey in Game 1. ``I asked,
`What's this guy doing?' Someone on the bench said, `That's just
him.' If Pepe [Lemieux's nickname] is quiet, if he's not causing
trouble, if he's not in somebody's face, something's wrong. If
he's yelling, screaming, slamming doors and threatening someone,
then he's on his game.''

But for all the jabs with his fist and his stick, it is the gibes
that have made Lemieux notorious. Although he yaps less since the
stoic Jacques Lemaire began coaching the Devils in 1993, he
remains among hockey's preeminent trash-talkers, a player who can
yo-mama the world in a barking baritone. During the first round
Lemieux hounded Neely about his small role in the film Dumb and
Dumber. ``He kept asking Neely which one he was, Dumb or Dumber,''
Guerin says.

There is also a sweet side to Lemieux, a surprising openness from
someone who has been singed by life. Above his stall at the
Meadowlands is a framed picture of his sons, Christopher, 5, and
Michael, 3, the most visible touch of family in the Devils'
dressing room. Lemieux went through a messy divorce and custody
battle that came to an end in the summer of '94, when his wife got
custody of the boys.

``I've had 10 years' experience in the league, and when I look
back at the things I've done and said, I don't have any regret,''
says Lemieux, 29, who came to the Devils from Montreal in a trade
for Sylvain Turgeon in 1990. ``I don't blame myself. I was 23, 24,
an age when a lot of kids are just getting out of college. I was
married with a child and had played four years in the NHL in
probably the toughest city in pro sports. I honestly wouldn't do
anything different. I just won't expect my children to behave the
same way at 30 as they did at 20.

``When I was young, my goal was to be a complete player. Play on
the power play, kill penalties, play center, left wing, right
wing. I've done that. I've done a little of everything. I've been
a goal scorer'' -- he scored 41 in a season once and 30 or more
three times -- ``and I've been a checker. I've been fairly

And now he is doing what he does best, jousting with Lindros,
bellowing into Flyer ears, establishing himself as a playoff MVP
candidate if New Jersey can put a sleeper hold on the Stanley Cup.
Give the Devil his due.

COLOR PHOTO:DAVID E. KLUTHO Lemieux, a clutch playoff performer, had eight goals in 12 postseason games at week's end. [Claude Lemieux]