Yesterday evening marked the 20th anniversary of the night Mario Lemieux’s #66 was raised to the roof of Mellon Arena, joining Michel Briere’s #21 as uniform numbers never again to be issued to any subsequent Pittsburgh Penguin. Two days before the pregame jersey retirement ceremony, Lemieux was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame, mere months after he played his final game. Lemieux was the ninth player to have the normal three-year waiting period prior to eligibility for the Hall of Fame waived. Of course, more illustrious chapters would be written in Lemieux’s biography several years later.
Over the past month, two of Lemieux’s early-career achievements have been getting renewed attention from the NHL 100 centennial celebration. The league created a bracket of 64 “Greatest Moments” that has now reached the Final Four after several rounds of fan voting. In the “Calder” Regional bracket, Lemieux’s D-splitting, Jon Casey-destroying goal in the 1991 Stanley Cup Final against Minnesota, lost in a quarterfinal to Wayne Gretzky’s 50 goals in 39 games.
However, Lemieux’s 5 goals in 5 ways on New Year’s Eve 1988 won the “Hart” Regional, defeating Gretzky’s record-breaking 802nd goal along the way. Now, Lemieux gets a rematch against Gretzky’s 50 in 39 in one of the tournament’s semifinals. Even in a gimmicky online bracket, the Lemieux vs. Gretzky comparisons continue on.
So which achievement is greater? Gretzky reaching 50 goals in Edmonton’s 39th game of 1981-82 (before any other player had even scored 30 goals) by dropping five goals on the Flyers, or Lemieux torching New Jersey with a pentagram of his own one night with an even-strength goal, a shorthanded goal, a power play goal, a penalty shot goal and an empty-net goal almost exactly seven years later?
Maybe the better question is, can anyone duplicate either of these feats?
Nikita Kucherov currently has 17 goals in 20 games and fivethirtyeight recently assessed his chances at joining the 50 goals in 50 games club that has a membership of only five players in NHL history. Last week, Sidney Crosby was asked about Lemieux’s 5 goals in 5 ways and given the much lower goal-scoring environment in today’s NHL, he “[doesn’t] think you’ll see that happen again in hockey.”
Crosby is stating the obvious: never mind 5 goals in 5 ways. Any type of 5-goal game is very rare. In the 55,729 NHL regular season games played all-time, one player scoring 5 goals in a game has occurred only 56 times. That’s 1/10 of 1% of all games in history. As Crosby noted, the goal-scoring context correlates with the occurrence of 5-goal games. The table below shows 80% of all 5-goal games happened in high-scoring eras, many of them in the years that Lemieux played when teams combined for an average of 7+ total goals per game.
By comparison, the total goals per game average has hovered consistently around 5.4 to 5.5 this decade. Unsurprisingly, we are currently in the fifth-longest drought – almost seven years – since the last 5-goal game (by Johan Franzen in February 2011).
Of all the players who scored five goals in one game, how many did it in four ways, excluding Lemieux?
How about three ways?
Five players. And Lemieux is on this list. Twice, in fact, as Mario had two other regular season 5-goal games.
Franzen and Gretzky both had even-strength, power play and empty-netters as part of their quintet, while Mike Ricci, Joe Nieuwendyk and Lemieux had even-strength, power play and shorthanded goals.
Finally, the last obvious question is: how many players had four goals, four different ways and fell just short of Lemieux’s accomplishment?
Three. All-time great Phil Esposito had even-strength, power play and shorthanded goals before icing a win in 1973 with an empty-netter. The same situation occurred for Brendan Shanahan in 2001 and Jarome Iginla in 2003. None of these men was awarded a penalty shot for a chance at history.
There is no question that what Lemieux did on December 31, 1988, was one of the most unique, astonishing, even absurd, feats in hockey history. That only three others have come within one category of matching Lemieux shows what a perfect storm of circumstances were needed to grant Lemieux an opportunity, and still, he had to capitalize on those opportunities – and he did.
The Devils were a bad team, among the league leaders in shorthanded goals allowed and penalties taken – Lemieux scored on a 5-on-3 situation – and remember, the New Jersey organization was so bad they couldn’t even tank properly four years prior when they ended up with Kirk Muller instead of Lemieux at the draft. But because the Pens that season were just as likely to get blown out as they were to blow people away, it’s not surprising that the score was only 7-6 for Pittsburgh late in the third, even with Mario sitting on four goals. Hence, New Jersey pulled Chris Terreri and with a few seconds left, Jay Caufield sees the open net but makes the wisest decision of his life and passes to Lemieux…