Mario Lemieux is being treated for a bone infection in his lower back that can cause crippling pain, but the Pittsburgh Penguins insist the all-star center is showing progress and will play again this season.

The team's orthopedist, Dr. Charles Burke, said published reports characterizing Lemieux's problem as career threatening are premature and said the two-time NHL scoring champion is responding to treatment.Burke and Penguins general manager Craig Patrick insisted they have not been evasive about Lemieux's condition, which The Pittsburgh Press described in a copyright story as a rare bone disease that croing by the book," Burke said.

"Mario's making great progress and should be back in the lineup . . . in January," Patrick said. "In time, we will get the confidence of the public that what we are saying is true. We've been up front. We haven't held anything back."

Defenseman Paul Coffey said the Penguins are hoping Burke's forecast is accurate.

"We're all concerned because he's a huge part of our team. The last thing we want to hear is bad news about Mario Lemieux. We're all pulling for him.

"Chip (Dr. Burke) told me that the story might have been a little misleading. They're still looking for him to come back in three months, like before. It's tough for anybody to really predict.

"The hardest part for him has to be mental. It's probably tough for him to keep his sanity."

The newspaper quoted doctors who said Lemieux has a form of vertebral osteomyelitis, which damages the bony portion of the spine. The disease can cause debilitating pain that drastically alters the lives of those who suffer from it.

Burke said osteomyelitis can be serious, but has hesitated to use it to describe Lemieux's condition.

"It isn't a disease, it's an infection. Mario has what we've said all along, a disk infection that has affected the bone," he said. "Using a formal, strict medical interpretation can be confusing and misleading."

The infection developed in the fourth lumbar vertebra in Lemieux's lower back about a month after he underwent surgery in July to partially remove a herniated disk.