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Penguins Penguins buffalo Sabres on first goal

Friday, April 27, 2001

By Dejan Kovacevic, Post-Gazette Sports Writer

BUFFALO, N.Y. -- The Buffalo Sabres are the NHL's best defensive team, having won the William Jennings Trophy for allowing the fewest goals during the regular season.

But you might want to ask to see that hardware as evidence if you witnessed the colossal breakdown which cost them Game 1 of their Stanley Cup playoff series with the Penguins, a 3-0 loss last night at HSBC Arena.

"That's just not us," defenseman James Patrick said. "We're a better team than to make a mistake like that."

The play began during a four-on-four situation five minutes after the opening draw.

Left winger Jan Hrdina gathered the puck along the right boards in the Penguins' end and tapped it ahead to linemate Jaromir Jagr. And with three Sabres back, Jagr opted to slow the play in the neutral zone and glide horizontally to the left side of the rink.

That's when things got bizarre.

Imagine a football team employing a dime defense, then sending all six defensive backs to cover the same wide receiver. That's a pretty good picture of what happened next.

Jagr had his back to the center-ice faceoff circle, near the Buffalo penalty box, as he continued to stickhandle. The four Sabres on the rink grew impatient and decided they would take the puck away from him.

That's right. All four Sabres.

Patrick already had position on Jagr, but he quickly got some unsolicited help from defense partner Dimitri Kalinin and forwards Chris Gratton and Maxim Afinogenov. In fact, the only guy wearing white who didn't attack Jagr was goaltender Dominik Hasek, 90 feet away.

"All we did was have four guys stare at the puck," Buffalo Coach Lindy Ruff said. "We had one defenseman already playing Jagr, then another defenseman and two forwards come over."

Jagr spotted the defensive error and whipped a blind backhand pass across the rink to center Mario Lemieux, who had just leaped over the boards to replace Hrdina and was dashing toward Hasek at full speed.

"It was a great pass," Lemieux said. "I don't know if he saw me or not, but he made a great play, gave me the opportunity to go in alone."

Patrick rushed across to recover, but all that accomplished was to keep Lemieux from having the room to get close enough to make a deke on Hasek.

No matter. When Lemieux approached the right hash, he ripped a perfectly placed slap shot over Hasek's glove at 5:07.

"If you allow Mario from the blue line in to tee it up," Ruff said, "I'd give him three out of four times he's going to score."

The Sabres had expected better, having discussed throughout the week the need to remain disciplined against Lemieux and Jagr. Instead, they allowed those two and the rest of the Penguins to have their way, giving up 32 shots, including numerous odd-man breaks and other point-blank attempts.

One of those breaks stood out above all.

And it served to underscore the danger of facing Lemieux and Jagr together: Pay too much attention to one, and the other is bound to burn you.

"When those players are on the ice, you always have to look over your shoulder to find the other one," Gratton said. "A couple of us didn't look over our shoulders that time, and Jagr made a great pass. There aren't a lot of guys in the league who can make that pass, but he did it."

"Obviously, it was a great play by Jagr, but we had everybody focused on him," Patrick said. "The whole thing caught us by surprise. You can't give those types of players those types of opportunities. We should know how to play that. In a four-on-four, you know your responsibility. We had a mix-up."

Ruff was left shaking his head.

The last thing he wanted to see so early in the series was a Lemieux breakaway.

"We made some big mistakes," he said. "I'm not going to kid anybody. We didn't play well enough to win the game."

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