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Canada gets its rout, gold-medal game berth

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Friday, February 22, 2002
Lemieux will think about ailing hip after Games

Associated Press

WEST VALLEY CITY, Utah -- Mario Lemieux said Friday his sore hip still isn't totally healed, but he won't start thinking about the NHL season until after Sunday's gold-medal game.

Lemieux had two assists while playing on a line with Paul Kariya and Steve Yzerman, as Canada easily beat Belarus 7-1 to move within one victory of the country's first Olympic hockey gold medal in 50 years.

"It means a lot to all of us, to the players and to Canadians back home," Lemieux said. "It is something we haven't done in a long time. We are proud Canadians. Hockey is our sport back home. Everybody plays and loves to watch it. For us to have a chance right now to do something special for our country is something we can all cherish for a long time if we win a gold medal."

Lemieux played poorly in his first Olympic game, a 5-2 loss to Sweden and sat out a second game as he struggled with the hip injury. But he had two goals Monday in a 3-3 tie with the Czech Republic and has been Canada's top playmaker in wins over Finland and Belarus.

Canada last played in the gold medal game in 1994, losing to Sweden, but that was before NHL players were allowed into the Olympics.

Lemieux, the Pittsburgh Penguins' owner-player, has been criticized by some fans - something that has rarely occurred during his on-and-off 18-year career - for putting the Olympics ahead of the team.

Lemieux missed two months of the season after having hip surgery in late October, then declined to play in back-to-back games after he returned in mid-January, mostly to make sure he came into the Olympics feeling strong.

"My hip is feeling pretty good, but my only concern right now is Sunday," Lemieux said. "Anything that happens after that is something I can't control. I've talked all along the last couple of months that the most important thing for me was to play in the Olympics and to try to help this team achieve our goal, which is winning a gold medal."

Once Lemieux returns to the Penguins early next week, they resume a compacted schedule of 24 games in the final 45 days of the season.

"Hopefully, my hip is going to get better over the last couple of months of the season and I can try to help my team get into the playoffs. But Sunday is my priority right now," he said.