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Penguins Analysis: Buffalo confronts the Penguins with depth, defense and desire

Thursday, April 26, 2001

By Dave Molinari, Post-Gazette Sports Writer

Talk about the Buffalo Sabres, and the conversation invariably begins with Dominik Hasek. That's where it usually ends, too.

Probably, at least in part, because so many folks outside the Niagara Frontier wouldn't know who else to discuss.

Miroslav Satan? The devil himself might not recognize the guy in street clothes.

Alexei Zhitnik? A pioneer in the Soviet space program, maybe?

Curtis Brown? Cranked out some hits on the Motown label, didn't he?

Casual fans in Western Pennsylvania likely know little, if anything, about those guys. Same with Vaclav Varada, Erik Rasmussen and Dimitri Kalinin, among others.

But they will learn. A lot. And soon.

Hasek isn't Buffalo's only big-name player -- veterans like Doug Gilmour and Dave Andreychuk work there now, too -- but the heart of the Sabres' lineup consists of players whose productivity is significantly higher than their profiles.

These Sabres are, in some ways, much like the Florida team that upset the Penguins in the 1996 Eastern Conference final. And not just because Coach Lindy Ruff was an assistant with the Panthers then, or because Stu Barnes, Jason Woolley and Rhett Warrener played for them.

Buffalo's greatest assets, aside from Hasek, are depth and synergy. Satan is an other-worldly talent when he's focused and motivated, which he appeared to be when Buffalo ran Philadelphia out of Round 1 in six games, but most of the Sabres' forwards are reliable two-way contributors who play a solid, not splashy, game.

That gives Ruff the luxury of rolling four lines. Maybe even the obligation to do it. The Penguins, conversely, practically have to give their fourth-liners a map for getting around the ice on those rare occasions when Coach Ivan Hlinka dispatches them.

And while the Sabres don't have game-breakers like Mario Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr -- care to list all the NHL teams that do? -- that doesn't mean the Penguins should abandon their recent commitment to team defense. Not unless they want to find out just how good goalie Johan Hedberg is.

Satan has outstanding offensive gifts, and young wingers like Jean-Pierre Dumont and Maxim Afinogenov have shown more than a few flashes of brilliance. The Penguins certainly know what Barnes can do when he gets on a roll, and more than a few of his teammates are talented enough to exploit any opportunities they're given.

Sabres General Manager Darcy Regier has tried to add more of an offensive dimension to his lineup since Buffalo lost to Dallas in the 1999 Stanley Cup final, and made two quality pick-ups at the trading deadline this year, bringing in Donald Audette and Steve Heinze.

Audette, in particular, is one of the NHL's most underrated goal-scorers and has the ability to be the home run hitter Buffalo has lacked.

The Sabres' most volatile offensive force during Round 1, however, was Chris Gratton. He had a team-high five goals -- no other Sabres player scored more than two -- and three assists and showed signs becoming the front-line center he never evolved into while playing for Tampa Bay and Philadelphia.

Perhaps his rampage against the Flyers was an aberration. A fluke. Or perhaps Gratton is evolving into the next Keith Primeau, another oversized center who was deemed an underachiever for years, but found his game during the 2000 playoffs and is now viewed as one of the league's top forwards.

Still, it is Buffalo's offensive depth, not a specific forward, that figures to concern the Penguins most, because balance is the most striking trait of the Sabres' offense.

No fewer than 18 of them registered a point against Philadelphia, and 11 chipped in at least one goal. The Penguins, by comparison, got points from 12 players and goals from nine in Round 1.

The Sabres have a surplus of capable bodies on defense, too. Enough that Woolley, a pretty fair package of talent and intangibles, was deemed expendable for most of the first round, dressing only once.

Warrener and Jay McKee figure to be the defensive pairing that teams with the Varada-Brown-Rusmussen line against the Penguins' No. 1 unit, which features Lemieux between Jan Hrdina and Jagr.

That assignment will keep Warrener and McKee in the spotlight, but at least two other Sabres defensemen are worth watching. Kalinin is a promising rookie, and Zhitnik, when his game is in sync, can be one of the league's best at his position.

He led the Sabres in hits (20) and average ice time (25:58) during Round 1 and is a strong skater who is good defensively. He seems to have harnessed a shot that, for years, was better known for velocity than accuracy.

Zhitnik, though, is given to making untimely errors, and has a penchant for taking bad penalties. Exorcise those from his game, and he can become a dominant force.

Buffalo's defensemen, like those in Washington, benefit from their forwards' work ethic and commitment in the defensive zone. And, like the Capitals, the Sabres pay great attention to detail, a reality reflected in their success on faceoffs.

Of the eight teams still alive in these playoffs, Buffalo was the best on draws during Round 1, winning 54.95 percent. The Penguins were easily the worst in the 16-team field, winning a mere 43.02 percent.

The Sabres' top faceoff man against Philadelphia was Brown, who went 93-59 (61.18 pecent), but Gratton (52-41, 55.91 percent) and Gilmour (49-42, 53.84 percent) also controlled more than half the draws they handled.

Hrdina, who was 41-29 (58.57 percent) was the only Penguins player to win more faceoffs than he lost during the first round, although it's worth noting that their work on draws -- especially important ones -- got decidedly better as the series progressed.

There are, to be sure, more than a few similiarities between the Capitals and Sabres, but it's not unreasonable to regard Washington as Buffalo Lite.

Mostly because the Sabres' wingers and centers, unlike their Capitals counterparts, don't usually perform as if they had lost their hands in an industrial accident when play moves into the offensive zone.

Buffalo was the NHL's most stingy defensive team during the regular season and did some nice work against Philadelphia, but it's worth noting that the Flyers used a seriously diluted lineup, especially up front.

Primeau was hobbled by a knee injury. Simon Gagne had a bad shoulder. John LeClair wasn't completely over the effects of back surgery.

The Penguins, on the other hand, are surprisingly healthy, having apparently gotten through Round 1 with nothing more serious than bumps, bruises and a haircut that seems to have Jagr quite concerned.

That means Hasek and his teammates can expect a full frontal assault from two lines -- the Lemieux unit and the one featuring Robert Lang between Martin Straka and Alexei Kovalev -- that are capable of blowing a series open in a couple of shifts.

The No. 2 line was dormant until Game 6 of the first round, and Jagr managed only one goal on 22 shots against Washington. The Sabres probably shouldn't factor a repeat of either into their game plan.

For all the problems Buffalo can cause, the largest usually is finding a way to get pucks past Hasek. That never has troubled the Penguins much, though.

They scorched Hasek for 10 goals in about 21/2 games during the regular season, and have an all-time record of 16-11-5 against him. They clearly respect -- but, just as clearly, do not fear -- him.

That doesn't mean they have a finely honed strategy for beating him; with Hasek's wildly unorthodox style -- he's made more saves with the back of his arms than some goalies have with their gloves -- there's not much point in dwelling on tactics.

They would be wise to stick to the basics -- getting screens and deflections and rebounds -- and hope that the skilled forwards who've had success against him in the past can do it again.

Actually, it's a given that the Penguins can score, no matter how sharp Hasek is. They did it reasonably often against Washington, which got a strong performance from goalie Olaf Kolzig, and there's reason to believe the Sabres will give them more room to operate than the Capitals did.

The critical variable -- again -- will be the Penguins' commitment to team defense. And, more to the point, the efficiency with which they execute their system.

The Penguins, almost to a man, have played defense with commendable passion in recent weeks, embracing the left-wing lock with real zeal.

But presumably because working at both ends of the ice is a relatively new concept for many of them, the Penguins do not seem entirely comfortable with the system yet.

There were times during Round 1, particularly when trying to protect a lead, that the Penguins conceded vast tracts of ice to Washington simply because they were eager to get back into defensive position.

As a result, the Capitals kept them on their heels for much of Games 5 and 6, even though the Penguins grabbed a 2-0 lead in both, and could have scripted a different ending to the series if more than one or two of them showed any semblance of a scoring touch.

If the Penguins do the same thing in this round, Hedberg -- and lots of fans in Western Pennsylvania -- might become more familiar with some of Buffalo's forwards than they ever would have cared to know.

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