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Penguins Penguins' second line regains its touch

Wednesday, April 25, 2001

By Dave Molinari, Post-Gazette Sports Writer

Martin Straka had no trouble finding the right word to describe linemate Robert Lang's goal in Game 6 of the Penguins' first-round playoff series against Washington.

Martin Straka's first goal of the playoffs couldn't have been any bigger Monday night. (Peter Diana, Post-Gazette)

"Awesome," he said.

Straka was equally impressed by the one his other linemate, Alexei Kovalev, scored on a five-on-three power play late in the second period, too.

"Huge," he called it.

But it fell to Kovalev to come up with the perfect way to characterize the three-goal contribution the Penguins' No. 2 line made to their series-clinching, 4-3 victory against the Capitals Monday at Mellon Arena.

"It's about time," he said.

Straka capped the line's biggest night in weeks at 13:04 of overtime, when he knocked the puck away from Washington defenseman Sergei Gonchar, then scooted past him and beat Capitals goalie Olaf Kolzig on a breakaway to clinch the Penguins' spot opposite Buffalo in the second round of the Stanley Cup playoffs.

That goal was Straka's first in these playoffs -- the first overtime winner of his career, too -- and put an exclamation point at the end of what the Penguins hope was the second line's breakout night.

After generating just one goal in the first five games -- Kovalev got it in Game 3 -- the No. 2 line moved emphatically toward re-establishing itself as a major offensive force.

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It had done a nice job of containing the Capitals' most dynamic offensive player, winger Peter Bondra, since the start of the series but put only one of 30 shots behind Kolzig during Games 1-5.

"We've been struggling a little bit, offensively," Straka said. "We tried to play good defense, but that's not enough in the playoffs. We have to score some goals, too."

Maybe not three in every game, but the Penguins' chances of surviving the series against the Sabres -- which will begin at 7:38 p.m. tomorrow at HSBC Arena in Buffalo -- will go up dramatically if they don't have to rely on Mario Lemieux's line to manufacture most of their goals.

"You need those guys to help us out in a series," Lemieux said. "They broke out at the right time. We're going to need them, certainly, against Buffalo. We'll need two lines to go out there and score to give us a chance to win."

That doesn't seem unreasonable, especially when Straka, Lang and Kovalev combined for 103 goals during the regular season; that's one more than Lemieux and his linemates, Jaromir Jagr and Jan Hrdina, scored.

"We can't leave everything for the first line," Straka said. "We can't leave it all for Mario and [Jagr]."

It's worth noting that members of the No. 2 line weren't the only ones who had less-than-expected offensive impact in the first round. Jagr, for example, chipped in a team-high five assists but scored only one goal.

For a five-time scoring champion who piled up 52 goals during the regular season and has Lemieux feeding him the puck, one in six games isn't satisfactory.

"I have to score goals," Jagr said. "I'm not happy with that."

That doesn't mean he'll be making any radical revisions in his game. After 11 seasons in the NHL, Jagr understands the nature of slumps and streaks.

"I'm not going to change anything," he said. "Everybody goes through that. You're up and down. Sometimes, no matter where you shoot, the puck is going in. Other times, you cannot buy a goal. ... When I start scoring, we'll be OK."

Especially if Kovalev, Straka and Lang do it, too. That didn't seem likely early in the first round -- "We definitely weren't too good in the first three or four games," Kovalev said -- but by the middle of the series, they began to find the room they need to skate and create.

And by Game 6, they had the goal judges in a constant state of high alert.

Lang shrugged off the line's early offensive struggles -- "Obviously, you want to score, but the big thing is to play to win" -- and, while he's an easygoing sort by nature, he might be even more relaxed than usual because of the success he has had against the Sabres this season.

Lang had four goals, four assists and a plus-minus rating of plus-7 in four regular-season games.

If he can produce at anything approaching that pace during in the second round, and if Straka and Kovalev generate points at their customary levels, Buffalo will face the daunting challenge of trying to contain two of hockey's most menacing lines.

Lines that were assured of an opportunity to torment a new opponent when Straka's shot burrowed into the net behind Kolzig Monday night.

"I'm glad it went in," Straka said. "And that it's all over."

He meant, most likely, Game 6. Or, perhaps, the first round. And, without a doubt, the No. 2 line's scoring slump.

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