PITTSBURGH, JAN. 28 -- It is a measure of the seriousness of his injury and its implications on his life that Mario Lemieux was nervous Saturday night in Quebec City. It was just the second hockey game Lemieux had played for the Pittsburgh Penguins in about 50 weeks because of pain that tied his back in knots, the surgery to correct a herniated disk and the complications that followed.

He has been such a fluid player, such an immense talent, that it seems incongruous that there would be nerves, emotions and fears connected to the 6-foot-5, 210-pound frame that had produced so many points in so few seasons.

"There was a time when I didn't think I would ever play again," Lemieux said today after practice at Civic Arena, where he and the Penguins will play the Capitals Tuesday night. "There was a period where I couldn't walk at all and I was in bed for about a month. I didn't feel very good about the whole situation. After the surgery, I was up the next day. But the infection was pretty serious."

Lemieux had surgery on July 11 and was expected to be ready for the start of the season. But in late September, an infection in the area took hold that seemed as threatening as the herniated disk. Rest and medication were the prescription.

People around the NHL constantly inquired about the 25-year-old superstar. If they didn't know him that well personally, they knew that he was likely to succeed Wayne Gretzky as the game's top player, if he hadn't already. The argument, thankfully, can go on. The Penguins, knowing he is several cornerstones of the franchise, kept close track of everything, while shielding him from questions and risk. His girlfriend, Nathalie, took care of him at his house in Pittsburgh, his year-round home.

"I didn't really talk about it with anybody, just to myself," Lemieux said when asked who heard about his pain -- a pain he describes by making a fist to symbolize the muscle in his back when he moved. "I was in pretty bad shape and so many times in that situation, you think the worst. Little by little, week after week, it got a little better."

And then, at last, he got to play. But Lemieux, a natural if ever there was one, said it felt "really strange," to be back on the ice, "especially in the first period and when I stepped on the ice the first time. I didn't know what to expect and I didn't play very well. It will take awhile to get the timing back and get in shape.

"As the game went on, I noticed a difference in my skating and the way I reacted to the play. I didn't panic as much as I did in the first when I got the puck."

Normally, opponents panic when Lemieux has the puck. They will surely be disheartened to know that after all that time off, still out of shape and worrying if his back would take a hit and crumble, he had three assists in a 6-5 Penguins victory.

"A little rusty," General Manager Craig Patrick said, adding with a laugh. "No one's complaining."

The fans here will get their first chance to see the rejuvenated Lemieux Tuesday. The fans at Le Colisee in Quebec City applauded loudly when he stepped on the ice and touched the puck. And for a Montreal native, that is quite rare. There is likely to be a stronger response Tuesday night.

But then the fans here have had reason to applaud anyway. There were serious doubts about the Penguins even when Lemieux was expected to start the season. Some major ones, particularly about the defense, remain. But the Penguins have won 15 of their last 20 games, and with a 27-21-3 record, they are in third place in the Patrick Division, just five points behind the first-place New York Rangers.

"The most important thing, is that we have pretty good balance," Coach Bob Johnson said.

Johnson is hoping Lemieux will "give us another dimension." Another dimension? Other than defenseman Paul Coffey, Lemieux was often all sides of the square.

But in his absence, a trio of Penguins forwards has emerged to fill his spot at or near the top of the league scoring list. As of this morning, Gretzky led all scorers with 98 points. But right behind him -- and ahead of Brett Hull -- were Pittsburgh center John Cullen and right wing Mark Recchi, with 81 and 77 points, respectively. Coffey was sixth (leading all defensemen) with 67 points and Kevin Stevens was 13th with 56. Mind you, as of this morning, there were 12 teams that didn't have one player with 56 points.

"Missing him for as long as we did gave other players identity," said goalie Tom Barrasso, whose 10-3 record since Dec. 1 hasn't hurt his standing either. "When I first came in '88, it was the Mario Lemieux and Paul Coffey Show. We have evolved to the point where Paul and Mario are great players and will go down in history as such. But other players have gained some identity of their own and don't have to feel overwhelmed by them. That has made a big difference in this team's capabilities. When it was just Mario and Paul, I think it was more detrimental than beneficial. Now, other players have been given a chance to step to the forefront and in the long term, we'll be better for it."

Cullen, Recchi and Stevens were all all-stars. What partially has fueled their success is that all three are playing out their option (and are so dubbed the Option Line). They can't demand the $2.3 million Lemieux makes, but they looking for much more than they earn now. But with Lemieux back, somebody is going to get less ice time. As a center, it looks like Cullen.

"It's going to bother people, sure," Cullen said. "But having Mario Lemieux take your spot is not like having somebody else take your spot."

Defense is the dark cloud on the Penguins' horizon. No Patrick Division team and only three others in the league have given up as many goals (189) and as defenseman Jim Johnson said, "The bottom line is that to do anything in the playoffs, you've got to play good solid defense. I don't think they've shown me or anyone else that they are capable of doing it. That's what wins in the playoffs. I know it's a concern of Patrick and {Bob} Johnson."

The coach's brow furrows when the subject is broached. "We've improved, but we have a long way to go," he said. "When we accomplish that, we'll be a pretty good team. It's only January."

Last January, Lemieux was in the midst of a 46-game scoring streak that would end on Feb. 14 in New York when he took himself out of a game because of the back pain. The Penguins were 27-27-4 after that game. They went 5-13-4 the rest of the way. Lemieux returned for the season finale -- a tie would have put the Penguins in the playoffs -- but the Pittsburgh lost despite a goal and assist from Lemieux. He had won the scoring title the two previous years. Still, in just 59 games, he finished fourth with 45 goals and 78 assists.

There will be no scoring title this season for Lemieux and the Penguins playoff chances are still iffy. But one consequence of Lemieux's injury should have some effect -- psychological and otherwise -- on the rest of the NHL.

"I never used to do anything before I came to training camp," Lemieux said of an offseason regime that will now have to include stretching, bicycle riding and other physical exertion. "I used to just come to camp and put on the skates. That will have to change."