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Penguins Penguins continue their stellar play under Hlinka's new game plan

Wednesday, March 28, 2001

By Dave Molinari, Post-Gazette Sports Writer

Hans Jonsson is not the poster boy for Penguins hockey.

Robert Lang and linemates Aleksey Morozov and Martin Straka celebrate Lang's goal 59 seconds into the Penguins' victory against the Sabres last night at Mellon Arena. (Peter Diana, Post-Gazette)

Not the way they played it for most of this season, anyway.

He doesn't make end-to-end rushes. Doesn't often smear opponents into the boards. Doesn't usually get off shots that leave a vapor trail.

Does not, on most nights, seem to have a spectacular corpuscle in his body.

But Jonsson fits in quite nicely with the Penguins' new approach to their work, with the idea that giving an honest, focused effort all over the ice is the way to play.

He not only scored the Penguins' first goal in their 4-1 victory against Buffalo at Mellon Arena last night, but he also was a force at both ends of the rink. He moved and shot the puck well in the attacking zone. Consistently broke up passes and blocked shots in his end.

Did all the little things -- and most of the big ones -- that make winning possible.

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"He was unbelievable," goalie Johan Hedberg said. "He was blocking shots. His stick was all over the ice, interfering with everything. He really deserved to be the first star."

The victory hoisted the Penguins (38-27-9-2) within three points of the fifth-place Sabres in the Eastern Conference playoff race.

The Penguins, who won three of four games from Buffalo this season, reduced their magic number for clinching a playoff berth to five. They lead seventh-place Toronto by three points and are eight ahead of eighth-place Carolina.

Penguins right winger Jaromir Jagr had a goal and an assist to tie Colorado center Joe Sakic for the NHL scoring lead with 108 points, but the story of this game was not offense.

The Penguins generated plenty of that, but it was their defensive effort that was most striking.

They've made a concerted attempt to play sound defense for two games in a row and have won both. That's the kind of positive reinforcement that will sell them on the merits of a solid two-way game.

"It's very important for us, if you play the [defense-oriented] game like that, then you win the game," Coach Ivan Hlinka said. "The players start to believe a little bit more [in] the system."

The Penguins limited Buffalo to 19 shots, only eight of which came during the first two periods. And while the Penguins had a few defensive lapses and letdowns, they have been surprisingly efficient at playing a style introduced only an hour or so before their 4-2 victory Sunday in New Jersey.

"It's only two games," center Mario Lemieux said. "And it seems like we have it down pat."

No one appreciates that more than Hedberg, whose life has gotten a lot easier since the Penguins made playing well in front of him a priority.

"That really shows what a professional bunch of guys this is, that we don't have to work on something for three weeks to make it work," he said. "We just talked about it, worked on it at one practice and all of a sudden, wow, we're playing a great defensive game."

Hlinka pointed out that the left-wing lock he has the Penguins playing hardly takes them into uncharted territory -- "It's nothing new. It's just [asking players to] be responsible, be patient and [do] your job. Don't be everywhere, and nowhere" -- but the impact of the style change can't be overstated.

"We've talked about our system, trying to work as a unit," Jonsson said. "When we do that, we play better."

Sabres Coach Lindy Ruff, however, didn't care much about the Penguins' newfound interest in sound defense. Fact is, he didn't even care to discuss it after the game.

When asked about the Penguins' execution of the left-wing lock, Ruff responded that "the left-wing lock didn't have a whistle in its mouth."

That was an obvious indictment of referees Dan O'Halloran and Scott Zelkin, and Ruff didn't stop there.

"It was ridiculous," he said. "Some of the calls were ridiculous."

The referees apparently weren't impressed by Ruff, either; he was assessed a gross misconduct at the end of the game.

That means it ended as badly as it began for Ruff, who watched his team give up two goals on the Penguins' first two shots.

Jonsson got his third goal of the season -- but second in the past four games -- 47 seconds after the opening faceoff, as he lashed a slap shot past Sabres goalie Martin Biron from the right point.

"He's gotten hot since I've come here," Hedberg said, laughing. "I should get some credit for that."

Hedberg was kidding, of course, but Jonsson downplayed his own part in the goal, too.

"I just tried to hit the net," he said.

Yeah, well, it worked. Presumably, Robert Lang had the same thing in mind when he capped a two-on-one break with Martin Straka 12 seconds later by steering a pass inside the right post.

Suddenly, the Penguins, who have made a habit of falling behind, found themselves up by two just 59 seconds into the game.

"That makes it much easier to play," Lemieux said.

They made it look like it, anyway, and Kevin Stevens snuffed any realistic chance of a Buffalo comeback when he beat Biron on a breakaway at 4:46 of the second.

Dave Andreychuk spoiled Hedberg's bid for his first NHL shutout with a power-play goal at 3:13 of the third, but Jagr countered that by scoring on a man-advantage 111 seconds later.

The Sabres got a few more chances before time expired, but all things considering, the Penguins looked a lot like a team that not only is capable of playing good defense, but has a genuine interest in doing it.

"The guys are starting to get it," Lemieux said. "The way we played tonight, especially early, we have to play like that every game. You can see there's a commitment from 20 guys on the ice, and that's what we need."

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