Lemieux's two assists would be fitting finale

PITTSBURGH (AP) -- Once again, Mario Lemieux's timing was perfect.

On possibly the last shift of his last NHL game, Lemieux set up Eric Meloche's goal with 10.1 seconds left to give the Pittsburgh Penguins a 3-2 victory over Carolina on Wednesday night.

Afterward, Lemieux repeated what's he said for weeks -- he won't
decide until this summer if he will play next season.

"I'm not sure if I want to be part of a rebuilding process,'' he said. "I've been wrestling with that for a while now.''

Indeed, if this was Lemieux's latest and, almost certainly, his final farewell, the symmetry certainly was there.

The man who scored on his first shot in 1984, who set up a goal mere seconds into the first shift of his memorable comeback in December 2000, created the game-winning goal on what might have been his final shift.

Also, in another remarkable twist for a player who spent nearly his entire career playing on Stanley Cup-contending teams, the Penguins are right back where they were during his rookie season in 1984-85: the bottom.

About all the Penguins accomplished Wednesday by winning was to
avoid finishing last in the NHL. The Hurricanes assured themselves
of that, just a year after playing for the Stanley Cup, by
stretching their winless streak to nine games (0-7-2).

With 61 points, the Hurricanes can finish with no more than 65
even if they win their last two. The Penguins have 65 with one game
remaining, and own the tiebreaker with Carolina.

The Penguins close out their worst season since Lemieux's rookie year Saturday at Washington, but he won't play.

"If this was my last game, I wanted to finish here, in front of the fans here who have supported me,'' Lemieux said.

His health, most notably his troublesome back, drove him into retirement six years ago, but that's apparently not a factor now. He's tired after playing 67 games, nearly three times as many as during his injury-interrupted 2001-02 season, but he said he otherwise feels good.

What he might not have is the heart to keep playing for what could be the NHL's worst team next season.

"It's not been very much fun, for myself or the franchise,'' Lemieux said. "It's been difficult all year ... nobody wants to lose all the time.

The Penguins (27-43-6-5) have won only 20 of 70 games since a 7-2-2 start, and general manager Craig Patrick has said they will spend next season in a talent-thin "survival mode'' until a new NHL labor agreement is reached.

"We're going to have some good, young players who will be starting their careers together, and I'm not sure if I want to be part of that process,'' he said.

It's been speculated Lemieux might trade himself to a contender, something he's long insisted he wouldn't do, to bring the Penguins some cash, prospects or both.

To do that, he would have to sell his majority stake in the franchise and divest himself of all financial interest in the Penguins. That would be an extremely complicated and time-consuming process that would require him to find a buyer, then arrange a deal, something that might take a lot longer than a short offseason to accomplish.

He doesn't sound like a man willing to go through all that,
especially if it means giving up the team he worked so hard to buy.

"It's been a great experience -- difficult at times -- but I always did the best I could,'' Lemieux said.

Game notes
The Penguins are assured of their fewest points in a full season since 1984-85, Lemieux's first in the league. ... Carolina lost for the first time in its last six in Pittsburgh. ... Irbe is 7-22-2 this season. ... The Penguins have scored only 23 goals in their last 18 games. It was only the second time during that span they scored as many as three goals.