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Penguins Kasparaitis' inspired play a huge hit with Penguins

Wednesday, November 08, 2000

By Dave Molinari, Post-Gazette Sports Writer

Their contact lasted only a few milliseconds. Maybe less. Barely long enough to blink an eye. But long enough to link them forever.

Or at least as long as both play hockey for a living.

It was March 7, 1998, and defenseman Darius Kasparaitis caught sight of a Philadelphia forward about to breach the Penguins' blue line. He couldn't make out who the Flyer was but did notice that he had his head down.

It was a classic rookie mistake that just happened to be committed by a world-class player, Eric Lindros. And Kasparaitis made him pay a terrible price for it.

He laid Lindros out with a crushing hit, rendering him unconscious before Lindros ever hit the ice.

"It was so quick," Kasparaitis said yesterday. "I didn't even know it was Eric. I just finished my check. Then, when I turned around, I saw him lying down."

Lindros was down for a while -- he had to be carried off the ice -- and out even longer. He missed 18 games while recovering from a Grade 3 concussion.

Lindros has had five more concussions since, and his career is on hold while he tries to shake the lingering effects of one inflicted by Scott Stevens of New Jersey during Game 7 of the Eastern Conference final in May.

So while the Kasparaitis collision isn't the only reason Lindros will be missing when the Penguins and Flyers play at 7:08 tonight at Mellon Arena -- Lindros' relationship with the Flyers has totally disintegrated over the past few years -- it launched a series of head injuries that has put Lindros' playing future in some doubt.

Enough that the most-celebrated hit of Kasparaitis' career, when he felled an absolute sequoia of a man with a check as clean as it was ferocious, comes with a bitter aftertaste.

"I'm not proud of that, because of what happened to Eric," Kasparaitis said. "It's too bad he got hurt."

Kasparaitis, it should be noted, had no obligation to take Lindros' injury so personally, because Lindros never displayed any particular affection for him. Or showed him anything resembling mercy, for that matter.

During the 1997 playoffs, Lindros smeared Kasparaitis face-first into the glass behind the Penguins' goal line after building up momentum while skating what seemed like half the rink.

Kasparaitis never has complained about that hit or about anything else that has been done to him. He plays with a true warrior's mentality, neither asking nor giving quarter.

That hasn't changed since long before he reached the NHL in 1992. What's different now is that a case could be made -- without a great deal of effort -- that Kasparaitis has been his team's best defenseman, at least so far this season.

And not just because he's the only one to score a goal.

Kasparaitis has been credited with a team-high 52 hits -- Bob Boughner, with 47, is the only other Penguin with more than 20 -- and has, in nearly every game, been reliable and solid in his own end.

Coach Ivan Hlinka declined to discuss how Kasparaitis' work compares to that of other members of the defense.

"I don't like to talk about who is the best and who is the [worst]," Hlinka said. "He's doing a good job for us."

That was particularly true during the Penguins' recent three-game Western road trip, when Kasparaitis provided the physical dimension that makes him so valuable.

"The last three or four games, he really showed that, regardless of what system we play, he can be a real presence out there," assistant coach Randy Hillier said.

"He's been more physical, which we need him to be, because when he plays that way, he's a presence out there. He makes everyone keep their head up, and they're maybe a little slower to the puck, knowing that they're going to have the body played on them."

Kasparaitis acknowledged that his hitting game got in sync during the games in San Jose, Vancouver and Calgary, that he slipped into a comfortable rhythm of playing the body.

"It's like scoring," he said. "You get on a streak."

Although Kasparaitis' approach to his work hasn't changed since he entered the league, his physique has. Just in the past few months, for that matter.

Kasparaitis modified his off-season diet, cutting way back on his carbohydrate intake, and has been rewarded with a decidedly more chiseled physique. Kasparaitis not only has whittled his weight from 216 to 210, but also has reduced his body fat to 7 percent.

"Last year, it was around 13 or 14 at the end of the season," Kasparaitis said. "I wondered why guys called me 'Chubby' all the time."

"I concentrated on my diet all summer long. I realized I had to get leaner, to get stronger. I read a lot of articles about guys like [Dale] Hunter. He watched his diet; that's why he lasted so long in the league."

Of course, the fact that only the final seven years of Hunter's career overlapped with Kasparaitis' might have been a factor, too, because absorbing enough Kasparaitis hits could convince almost anyone to find another line of work.

Being such a physical force gives Kasparaitis a value that transcends the statistics he generates. And explains why, in recent months, he has been mentioned as an attractive prospective acquisition in cities from Phoenix to Ottawa.

Then again, there's no reason to believe Penguins General Manager Craig Patrick is prepared, let alone eager, to part with him. Especially when Boughner, the other big hitter on his defense, can become an unrestricted free agent after this season.

"I play this game hard, and, hopefully, I'm going to be a Penguin for the rest of my career," Kasparaitis said. "Actually, it feels good when other teams want you. But, hopefully, Craig isn't going to make a mistake and trade me off."

Suffice to say, he wouldn't be the first guy to make a painful error in judgment around Kasparaitis.

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