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Slegr blows whistle on Capitals' comeback

Tuesday, April 18, 2000

By Dejan Kovacevic, Post-Gazette Sports Writer

Jiri Slegr leaped over the boards at the Penguins' bench and charged into the Washington zone. He wanted desperately to catch teammate Martin Straka's attention. And he wanted to do it without letting the Capitals know he was coming.

Why not yell out in their common Czech tongue?

"No, they've got two Slovaks on the other team," Slegr explained. "They'd understand."

So he whistled.

Loud enough to be heard over the roar of 17,148 fans at Mellon Arena.

Loud enough that Straka noticed him streaking down the left side and fed him a sharp pass that landed on his stick in full stride.

A second later, Slegr ripped a sizzling slap shot over the right shoulder of Washington goaltender Olaf Kolzig. It came with 4:32 remaining and brought the Penguins a 4-3 victory in Game 3 of this first-round Stanley Cup playoff battle last night. More important, it gave the Penguins a 3-0 stranglehold in the series as it goes back to the MCI Center tomorrow.

And, to think, the Capitals had been complaining about whistles all series long.

"I do it a lot, the whistling," Slegr said. "I wasn't sure if Marty could see me, so I wanted to be sure he could hear me."

Here's how the play unfolded ...

The score was tied, 3-3, and the Penguins were having a rotten shift deep in their zone. They were trapped for nearly a minute by the Capitals, who forced several turnovers and buzzed goaltender Ron Tugnutt's net.

Finally, the Penguins gained possession and mounted a counterattack.

Defenseman Darius Kasparaitis, exhausted from chasing the Capitals around, didn't join them. He went to the bench, and that allowed Slegr to come on.

"It's a good thing, too," Kasparaitis said. "I wouldn't have scored that goal."

Straka carried the puck across the Washington blue line near the right boards, then quickly pulled up and surveyed the ice.

Right winger Alexei Kovalev saw that Capitals defenseman Ken Klee was skating toward Straka, so he stood in his path, delivering a block that would have made Mike Webster proud.

"I didn't really interfere with him," Kovalev insisted. "I just wanted to give Marty an extra two seconds to make a play."

Straka looked at center Robert Lang charging hard toward the net, but he couldn't find a clean passing lane to get him the puck. He played with it for another split-second, then heard Slegr's whistle and made his cross-ice dish.

Lang, meanwhile, was jostling in the crease with Capitals defenseman Sergei Gonchar and briefly bumped Kolzig. That moved Kolzig a little out position, which doesn't hurt when a shooter is looking for room against a 6-foot-3 goaltender.

Slegr liked what he saw.

"You know, some guys talk about how their shots are lucky. But I saw where I was going. I knew where I wanted to shoot."

It was the top left corner.

He teed up and nailed it. Hard.

"It was a great shot," Kolzig said. "He put it into a perfect spot."

The puck hit the pipe before entering the net, but Slegr said he never worried when he heard the big clang.

"Oh, no, not at all. I followed it all the way in. I knew it was in."

Two years ago in Japan, Slegr scored a goal that helped bring the Olympic gold medal to the Czech Republic. It made him a national hero in his homeland and established him as one of the game's most gifted two-way defensemen.

He called this goal bigger.

"For sure, this is the biggest goal of my career," Slegr said. "The Olympics were great, but these are the Stanley Cup playoffs. This is the best hockey there is."

To celebrate his score, Slegr did his customary leap against the glass. He described it as his way of showing appreciation for Pittsburgh's hockey fans.

"It means a lot to me," Slegr said. "I'm happy when I score, and I hope our fans are, too."

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