1/24/97 -- 8:38 PM


CANONSBURG, Pa. (AP) - Mario Lemieux could only watch as the defending Stanley Cup champion Colorado Avalanche built a 3-0 lead against the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Idled with a bruised back, Lemieux was a mere observer to the Penguins' comeback with three third-period goals that sent Thursday's game into overtime.

And as Pittsburgh lost in overtime, he chafed in his Super Box perch high above the Civic Arena.

``It's tough to watch from up there,'' Lemieux said Friday. ``It was especially tough in the third period when the team got going. You're sitting up there helpless, but that's what happens when you're injured.

Lemieux, hurt in Tuesday's game against Calgary, blamed his pain on the way he fell on his back rather than his slide into the net.

``I probably bruised it pretty good,'' he said. ``The same thing happened last year against Hartford, and I missed a couple of days. But it came around after that.''

Thanks to some rest and the fingers of massage therapist Tom Plasko, Lemieux's back has recovered once more. He returned to practice Friday at the Iceoplex in Southpointe and expects to face the New York Rangers on Saturday at the Civic Arena.

``I felt pretty good,'' Lemieux said. ``It's still a little bit sore from the bruise, but I was able to skate freely. ... I'll see how I feel after the game and decide then if I'll go to Montreal,'' where the Penguins play Sunday. ``If not, then I'll just get ready for next week's games.''

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