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It's easy to watch Lemieux

From the stands, anyway. Do so on the ice, and you and your team will fall behind in a hurry.

Roberto Luongo has a tip for the Lightning as it gets ready to face Mario Lemieux tonight at the Ice Palace.

Don't even think about him being on the ice.

"If you think about what he can do to you out there, you're done," said the Panthers goaltender, who faced Lemieux and the Penguins on Friday night at National Car Rental Center. "You just don't know what he is going to do."

So let's concentrate on what he has done.

Since Lemieux returned after a 3{-year retirement, he has given significant hop to a franchise that needed to solidify its season-ticket base as part of its effort to secure a new arena.

He has sparked so much excitement around the league that the 35 games Pittsburgh has played since Lemieux returned to the lineup Dec. 27 have sold out. Tonight's game will be No. 36.

Even the Panthers' generally apathetic fans gave Florida its first full house of the season. The morning skate, of all things, was attended by 200 fans.

"Let's face it," Luongo said, "he's one of the greatest of our time."

Tonight's game will be the Tampa Bay area's first glimpse of the revival.

But ask Lemieux what has been most gratifying about his return, and the 35-year-old superstar will tell you about his ability to answer a personal call; a call that began getting his attention the second year of his retirement.

"Hockey is in my blood," Lemieux said before Friday night's game. "When hockey is in your bloodstream, it's difficult to get rid of it. But I think that's for all athletes with their sports. They start playing at a young age and play it all their life, and when it's not there, it's something they miss tremendously."

Truth be told, Lemieux didn't miss hockey all that much immediately after his retirement at the conclusion of the 1996-97 season.

The intense back pain he endured nightly was still fresh in his mind. And there was a lot to be said for lounging at his Boynton Beach home with his wife and four kids, playing golf and barbecuing with friends.

Lemieux said watching a game on television was rare.

But that little voice that speaks for his competitive spirit began calling a year later. It got more insistent after Lemieux purchased the Penguins and brought the team out of bankruptcy in September 1999. It might as well have been in stereo as Lemieux watched Pittsburgh reach last season's Eastern Conference final.

"You never want to go through your own life thinking what might have been," Lemieux said. "I was coming back to be one of the best again. That's how I've lived my whole life."

Lemieux has 30 goals and 30 assists in 34 games. Extrapolate that over an 82-game season and you get 72 goals and 72 assists for 144 points. That would be the NHL's highest-scoring season since Lemieux went 69-92-161 in 1995-96, his first season back after missing almost two while fighting Hodgkin's disease.

"We knew he was going to do well, but not this well," Penguins goaltender Jean-Sebastien Aubin said. "Three years he didn't play, and it didn't affect him at all."

Well, not quite. Lemieux went through a stretch in mid-February when he said his back and hip were so sore, "I couldn't lean over and tie my skates."

He even sat out March 3 at Washington as a precaution. But a new regimen of stretching exercises, done four times daily, 15 minutes at a time, has helped tremendously.

"The pain has been good the last couple of weeks," Lemieux said. "It's been great to have a second chance to come back and play again. I don't have too many years left at 35, so it's been a lot of fun to have an opportunity to come back on the ice.

"I'm just enjoying the game a lot more, savoring the moments."

So is Pittsburgh. The Penguins were 15-14-6-1 when Lemieux returned. Since then, they are 21-11-2-1.

"He's amazing to watch," said Lightning forward Matthew Barnaby, who was traded from the Penguins to Tampa Bay after playing 14 games with Lemieux. "The puck is always following him around, and he reads the game so much better than anyone else."

"He's such an elegant player," Lightning general manager Rick Dudley said. "Rarely in this world are there athletes that command that kind of attention. He does."

Lightning rookie center Brad Richards idolized Lemieux growing up and would love to just talk to him or ask for an autograph.

"But I wouldn't want to put him in an awkward position," Richards said. "I just can't wait until I get on the ice with him."

"I hope we play against him," Lightning coach John Tortorella, "and not just watch him."