DENVER – Claude Lemieux might be viewed as a villain in other venues.
Not here, though. Not in the city where he helped bring a Stanley Cup title. The 43-year-old Lemieux received a hardy ovation before helping his new team, the San Jose Sharks, to a 3-0 win over the Colorado Avalanche on Tuesday night.
“There’s plenty of places I can get booed,” he said, grinning. “This is a special place to me and I always love and still spend a lot of time in Colorado.”
Evgeni Nabokov stopped 31 shots for his 43rd career shutout and Milan Michalek scored two goals as the Western Conference-leading Sharks won for the sixth time in seven games.
Lemieux helped the Avalanche to a Stanley Cup title in 1996 and remains a fan favourite, his familiar Avalanche sweater popping up around the arena.
He left the league after the 2003 playoffs with Dallas, but started a comeback with the Sharks’ minor-league affiliate nearly two months ago. He was recalled to San Jose last week.
Known for his vicious hits, Lemieux was rather tame on Tuesday in his second game for San Jose. He checked Darcy Tucker into the boards and had a bump on Jordan Leopold, but that’s about it.
His reputation, though, caused the Avalanche to skate with their heads up, cognizant of where he was at all times during his 9 1-2 minutes of ice time.
“He will finish checks, that’s for sure,” Milan Hejduk said. “It’s an incredible story, his coming back. What a story.”
When Hejduk was starting his NHL career, he was shown the ropes by Lemieux.
For that, Hejduk is eternally grateful.
“I spent some quality time with him,” Hejduk said. “What a great guy.”
Not many say that – especially in Detroit – about a player who built his reputation around being an agitator.
But he can’t change his ways, not this late.
“I don’t think he’ll stick around if he tries to be fancy,” Colorado’s Ian Laperriere said. “That’s one guy that knows how to win.”
So, what motivated Lemieux to return to the league?
“It’s fun,” Lemieux said.
Nabokov had a good time turning in his third shutout of the season. He made several sensational saves, including one by the seat of his pants in the first period, thwarting Ryan Smyth’s potential score by landing on top of the puck as Nabokov slowly drifted inside the net.
However, the puck never crossed the line, just a sprawled out Nabokov. The play was reviewed and the ruling of no goal upheld.
Avalanche coach Tony Granato won’t quibble with the call. Nabokov has made too many exceptional saves in his career to question one.
“The one thing you have to realize about him, if you’ve watched him play over the years, he never gives up on a play,” Granato said. “He pulls a save like that out quite a bit. You think you’re on the scoreboard and he finds a way to stay with it and make an incredible play.”
Smyth later crashed into the rear of the net, knocking the goal off its moorings and right onto Nabokov’s back.
Even that didn’t rattle Nabokov in his first game since the All-Star break.
“After five days off you don’t know exactly where you will be, you don’t know exactly what to expect from the home team,” Nabokov said. “But we know what we expect from ourselves. Maybe it wasn’t a perfect game, but it was a disciplined game and a smart game.”
Although he’s playing on the fourth line, Lemieux couldn’t be more pleased with his position.
“I take pride in whatever role’s going to be assigned to me,” he said. “I have the best seat in the house. You can’t buy that seat; you have to earn it.”
When Laperriere heard that Lemieux was attempting a comeback, he was skeptical.
Now, he’s impressed.
“I’ll give him all the credit in the world,” said Laperriere, who returned after missing eight games with a back injury. “He put out the effort to get here.”
Will Laperriere be playing hockey at 43?
“I’ll be playing, but not in the NHL – with my kids,” the 35-year-old Laperriere responded.
Notes: The Avalanche are in the midst of an eight-game homestand, but have lost three of four to begin the stretch. … Colorado F David Jones made his return from a back injury, only to leave again in the second period with a shoulder ailment. … San Jose recalled defencemen Derek Joslin and Mike Moore from the Worcester Sharks of the American Hockey League. … Sharks C Patrick Marleau scored an empty-net goal with 37.2 seconds remaining. … Sharks C Joe Thornton played his 800th game.