The 1988-89 season saw Lemieux set personal highs in goals, assists and points. He easily won the scoring title over Gretzky, despite missing 4 games to injury, with 199 points to Gretzky’s 168. He became only the second player in history to score 80 goals, his 85 ranked third most all-time behind only Gretzky’s 92 and 87 and has only been surpassed by Brett Hull’s 86 during 1990-91 campaign. He became just the third player to ever dish out 100 assists in a season with his league leading 114 (tied with Gretzky) and just missed joining only Gretzky as the only players to have recorded 200 points in a season. He also eclipsed Gretzky’s record for shorthanded goals during the season by scoring 13.
This season also saw him enter into a pretty exclusive club, the 50 goals in 50 games club. At that time, only Maurice Richard, Mike Bossy, Wayne Gretzky (three times), and Jari Kurri belonged. Since then, Brett Hull (twice), Cam Neely, and Alexander Mogilny have joined, and Lemieux repeated the feat two more times.
On October 30, 1988, Lemieux was slashed in the neck/chest region by New York Rangers defenseman David Shaw, in a game at Madison Square Garden. It occured early in the third period. The incident sparked a series of fights and brawls that caused the third period to drag on for nearly two hours. The game ended with nearly 300 penalty minutes issued between the two teams, included 16 major penalties for fighting. Hockey fight fans still look to this game as being one of the all time classic games for fights and brawls. Lemieux wound up with a bruised sternum and Shaw received a 12 game suspension.
On December 31, 1988, in a game against New Jersey, Lemieux became the only player in history to score a goal five different ways by scoring an even strength, power-play, shorthanded and an empty net goal and also managed to add a penalty shot goal as well.
More importantly, Pittsburgh made the playoffs for the first time in 7 seasons and although they eventually lost in the second round, Lemieux made his mark as a playoff performer. He finished with 12 goals and 17 points in 11 games. On April 25, 1989, facing the Philadelphia Flyers, Lemieux set or tied several playoff records with his 5 goal, 8 point performance in a 10-7 Pittsburgh win.
The 1989-90 season started with much promise for both Lemieux and the Penguins but would ultimately end in disappointment. On Halloween in 1989, Lemieux began a streak of recording at least one point per game that would eventually end at 46 — just five short of Gretzky’s record. He was forced to leave a game against the New York Rangers with back pain and would not return until the final game of the season. During the All-Star game in Pittsburgh, Lemieux scored three goals in the first period and four goals overall to win his third All-Star Game MVP. With Pittsburgh’s playoff hopes still in doubt, Lemieux returned for the last game of the regular season in hopes of securing a playoff spot. Needing only a tie or win to advance to the Stanley Cup playoffs, Pittsburgh eventually lost in overtime to Buffalo.
Lemieux’s back pain did not subside over the summer and was later diagnosed as a herniated disc. While recovering from back surgery, Lemieux was found to have contracted a rare infection from the surgery in his back and became bedridden for months leading to speculation that, at only 25, his career might be over.
With the Penguins in contention for first place for much of the season and finally able to provide a supporting cast to complement his talents, Lemieux returned in January of 1991 and helped Pittsburgh win its first ever division title and move on to the playoffs for only the second time in his remarkable career.
Pittsburgh and Lemieux won the Stanley Cup for the first time that year and Lemieux won the Conn Smythe Trophy as the playoff MVP after leading the playoffs with 44 points and 28 assists, both the second most in Stanley Cup playoff history.
The following season saw Lemieux win the Art Ross Trophy for the third time, pacing the league with 131 points. His team made the playoffs for the second straight year but Lemieux missed the first game of the first round against the Washington Capitals because of back pain. Lemieux returned but Pittsburgh found itself down three games to one in the series. The Pens would rebound to win the series in 7 games with Lemieux scoring 17 points in only 6 games but his hand was broken by a vicious slash in the second game of the next round versus the New York Rangers forcing him to miss the remainder of the series. Even if the Penguins won the series, his return for the rest of the playoffs was uncertain.
Pittsburgh did win and advance to the Wales Conference Finals. Lemieux returned in Game 2 of that series, and the Pens would not lose a game the rest of way to capturing their second straight Stanley Cup. Again, despite missing 6 games to injury, Lemieux led all scorers during the playoffs with 16 goals and 34 points in only 15 games and was named playoff MVP for the second straight year. Only Lemieux and Philadelphia goaltender Bernie Parent (’74, ’75) have won the Conn Smythe Trophy in consecutive seasons.
With hopes high of a third straight Stanley Cup championship, Lemieux and company got off to a strong start during the 1992-93 season and Lemieux was on pace to challenge both Gretzky’s record of 92 goals in a season (1981-82) and his 215 points (1985-86). However, in January was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s disease and was forced to undergo energy draining radiation treatments, thus leaving his career once again and possibly even his survival in doubt.
Lemieux did return after missing only two months but found that not only was Pittsburgh struggling without their superstar, but he was also now 12 points behind Buffalo’s Pat LaFontaine in the annual scoring derby, despite holding a healthy lead before his diagnosis.
On the day of his last radiation treatment, Mario flew to play against Philadelphia and scored a goal and an assist that same night. Lemieux and Pittsburgh then went on an unprecedented tear for the rest of the season. Pittsburgh won a NHL record 17 games in a row to finish first overall and Lemieux rebounded to win his second straight scoring title and fourth overall. Lemieux finished with 160 points (69 goals, 91 assists) in only 60 games played, the lowest games played total for any NHL scoring champion, to win the scoring title by 12 points over LaFontaine who finished with 148 points in 84 games. During his late season tear Lemieux added back-to-back four-goal games, a five-goal game against the rival New York Rangers and at one point scored 27 goals, 24 assists for 51 points in only 16 games! However, after dispatching New Jersey in 5 games during the first round, Pittsburgh lost against the New York Islanders in 7 games after David Volek scored in overtime of Game 7.