Joe Starkey: Mario and Sid — wow, have Penguins fans been lucky

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PITTSBURGH — I’m not even including Jaromir Jagr or Evgeni Malkin in this piece, except for right here — and many franchises would be thrilled to call those two their best players of all time.

With Cups and scoring titles and Hart Trophies strewn between them, both are first-ballot Hall of Fame shoo-ins, unless the voters snub Malkin the way they did on that 100 greatest list a few years ago.

Anyway, I was on my way to a Sidney Crosby column after he scored that vintage backhand goal Wednesday night in Colorado — the same day NHL players again voted him the best all-around player in the league — when I accidentally stopped by Mario Lemieux. And then couldn’t leave.

I was looking up the best age-35 seasons among hockey greats. Crosby surely is having one of those, with 30 goals and 84 points after Wednesday and, as the players point out annually, a superbly rounded game. He is a hockey metronome. A machine. An astounding display of consistently elite production — and spectacular outbursts.

Don’t ever forget that part of Crosby’s game. People describe him as the only superstar who doubles as a grinder. Maybe. But he’s also one of the greatest showmen of all-time. Don’t ever sell him short on entertainment value and pure offensive genius. I’m sure I don’t have to remind people of that …

Do I? Change your day by checking out this montage titled, “15 Times Sidney Crosby Did the Impossible.” It wasn’t updated to include him turning Colorado defensemen Samuel Girard into an Auntie Anne’s pretzel and drilling a backhander from the high slot the way Alex Ovechkin buries one-timers (forehanded one-timers) from the left circle.

Jagr, Wayne Gretzky and many others were done with 30-goal seasons by age 35. Malkin might be, too, although he is thriving into his late 30s.

But I don’t think I’ll ever get past what Mario did.

He’d been sitting for 44 months, to be precise, and returned to post 35 goals and 76 points in 43 games, easily leading the NHL in points per game. I’m not sure it isn’t the most underrated and perhaps greatest feat in hockey history, considering all the factors involved, including that it happened during the aptly named “dead-puck era.”

A site called lists the five best points-per-game seasons since 1996, and Lemieux’s comeback year ranks fifth. Remember now, he was out for 44 months, had turned 35 three months earlier, had retired after years of debilitating back pain and a bout with Hodgkin’s lymphoma and was playing in an era when the net might as well have been the size of a mouse trap.

The top five points-per-game seasons since 1995-96:

— Lemieux, 1995-96, 2.30 ppg

— Connor McDavid, 2022-23, 1.92 ppg

— McDavid, 2020-21, 1.88 ppg

— Jagr, 1995-96, 1.82 ppg

— Lemieux, 2000-01, 1.77 ppg

That’s it. That’s the list for the past 27 years. Do you know how many great players have come and gone (or are still here) since then? We’re talking about all of McDavid’s other seasons, plus Peter Forsberg, plus prime Jagr, Crosby, Malkin, Nathan McKinnon, Ovechkin, Patrick Kane, young Joe Thornton (yes, he was young once), Nikita Kucherov and whoever else you want to mention over the past quarter-century-plus.

Searching for a little perspective, I reached out to the great Mike “Doc” Emrick on Wednesday morning for a quick take on whether Lemieux’s performance that season was the “greatest feat in hockey history.”

Doc referenced Gordie Howe, who had 44 goals and 103 points at age 40, saying, “As much as we love superlatives and as stunning as that was by 66, Gordie played 25 years in Detroit, retired, was isolated by the Red Wings with a meaningless job and, after sitting idle for two years, returned at 45 for seven years, including four 30-goal seasons and two 100-point years.”

True enough, and truly astounding, although that was in the WHA. Emrick also referenced legendary goaltender Jacques Plante, who was great into his 40s.

“Jacques Plante retired for three years, returned at age 39 to be with St. Louis, where he won the Vezina. … So Mario’s performance is one of (the greatest hockey feats). And, of course, love 66 like anyone does.”

Another astute, long-time hockey observer — Kevin Allen, long of USA Today — shared his thoughts on the same question:

“That was amazing, but I’ve always felt (Lemieux’s) greatest feat was his comeback from cancer in 1992-93. He finishes his radiation therapy in the morning, scores his 40th goal in Philly that night and then goes on to erase Pat LaFontaine’s 12-point lead to win the scoring championship. I remember he had 30 goals and 50-some points over the last 20 games. Had he delivered that pace over an entire season it would have been a 229-point season. Mario had so many amazing feats, but kicking cancer’s rear end and then performing at such an incredible level was my favorite.”

He might be right, and this marks the 30-year anniversary of that scoring binge. As for the others, I didn’t see Plante or Howe real-time, so in terms of what these eyes have witnessed, I’ll put Mario’s comeback year of 2000-01 tops on the list — although in addition to ’92-93, there is at least one other season that merits mention: that time, two years into his return from retirement, when an injured, battered and soon-to-retire 37-year-old Lemieux put up 91 points in 67 games with the second-worst team in the league.

That was two years before Crosby arrived, and after that goal in Colorado, we can now say he’s the first player in NHL history to score 30 goals at age 18 and 35. I don’t think I’ll be surprised if he does it at 40, either.

Man, are we lucky.