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Penguins No Jagr, but plenty of luck results in 2-0 series edge

Sunday, April 29, 2001

By Dave Molinari, Post-Gazette Sports Writer

BUFFALO, N.Y. -- The Penguins' best winger never made it onto the ice yesterday.

Alexei Kovalev rocks Sabres defenseman Alexei Zhitnik with an open-ice hit yesterday in the first period of Game 2. Zhitnik left with a mild concussion, and his status for tomorrow's game is not known. (Matt Freed, Post-Gazette)

Their penalty-killers spent way too much time there.

They got only 14 shots against one of the game's premier goaltenders. And only three of those came in the third period of a game that was tied after two.

And, oh yeah, they were playing on the road. Against an opponent fully aware that its season could be sabotaged by a loss.

All were plausible excuses for the Penguins to lose.

None had to be used.

Instead, the Penguins seized the upper hand in their second-round playoff series against Buffalo by virtue of a 3-1 victory at HSBC Arena. They will have a chance to claim complete control when they meet the Sabres in Game 3 at 7:08 p.m. tomorrow at Mellon Arena.

The Penguins won despite playing without right winger Jaromir Jagr, who has acknowledged having a charley horse and sore groin, but who also is believed to have aggravated a shoulder problem during Game 1.

His status for Game 3 is not known.

More Penguins Coverage:

Bob Smizik
Penguins know series isn't over

Inside the NHL
Bettman backs Capitals' tactics

Sabres rue bad breaks and bad luck

Penguins Report: 4/29/01


General Manager Craig Patrick -- who adhered to the party line that Jagr's problems are limited to a charley horse -- said he hopes Jagr will be able to play, while Jagr winked at a reporter after the game and said he is "out for the playoffs."

The status of Sabres defensemen Alexei Zhitnik and Jay McKee, both of whom received what Buffalo Coach Lindy Ruff described as "mild concussions" during Game 2, was equally uncertain, although McKee is not scheduled to accompany his teammates to Pittsburgh today.

Zhitnik left the game after absorbing a crushing hit from Penguins right winger Alexei Kovalev -- whom Zhitnik had flattened early in the third period of Game 1 -- at 14:43 of the first period.

Kovalev appeared to drive a forearm into Zhitnik's chest, knocking him off his skates and causing Zhitnik's head to slam off the ice. Zhitnik had to be helped to the locker room.

Ruff said he watched two replays that suggested the contact was "elbow and chin," and NHL director of hockey operations Colin Campbell is expected to review the play to determine if it merits a fine or suspension.

Kovalev, meanwhile, contended that he simply hit Zhitnik with his shoulder.

"When he dropped his head down and I saw the opportunity to finish a check on him, I finished the check," Kovalev said. "Nobody out there is trying to hurt anybody."

Maybe not, but it happens. And not always to the target of a big hit.

McKee, for example, was hurt after launching himself at Penguins center Mario Lemieux in the neutral zone at 8:26 of the second period.

McKee's check dropped Lemieux -- Lemieux said he actually was knocked out "for a couple of seconds" -- but McKee was cut when his face struck the back of Lemieux's helmet.

The Penguins had expected the Sabres to throw their bodies around -- "We were aware they were going to come hard," defenseman Marc Bergevin said. "And they really did" -- and Lemieux's response to McKee's hit had to be a bit deflating for Buffalo.

After shaking off the initial shock of the check, Lemieux got back to his feet, ready to rejoin the play.

Jan Hrdina, Lemieux's linemate, pointed out that "maybe some people don't realize he's a big, strong guy," and defenseman Bob Boughner offered that checking Lemieux "is like hitting a brick wall."

Had Lemieux, not McKee, left the game at that point, the outcome likely would have been different.

Lemieux did not score a goal for the first time in five games -- fact is, he managed only one piddling second assist -- but he was a dominant force all over the ice. Especially after McKee's hit gave him a new focus and fury.

"Mario's playing out of his mind right now, both [ends] of the rink," left winger Kevin Stevens said. "It's crazy, how good he's playing. He might not be doing what he was doing in the early '90's, but I think he's playing better than he's ever played."

Lemieux picked up his only point on Andrew Ference's winning goal at 8:09 of the third.

Ference took a shot from near the top of the right circle and the puck ended up in the net behind Sabres goalie Dominik Hasek after deflecting off Buffalo defenseman James Patrick, who was jousting with Lemieux in front of the net.

"I was aiming for [Patrick's] back," Ference said, chuckling. "That's just the way playoffs go. I've had almost 10 good shots in this series that have been right on net, and sometimes it's the lucky ones that go off people's backs that count as the winners."

Lemieux was the only member of the No. 1 line to record a point in Game 3, but Jagr's replacements, Josef Beranek and Rene Corbet, earned praise for their work.

Beranek, who filled in for Jagr at the end of Game 1, took his spot at the start of Game 2 but was injured during the second period and replaced by Corbet. The official report was that Beranek has a pulled groin, although there were indications that he actually injured an arm.

"That was a great job by Beranek and Corbet to step in," Ference said. "Those aren't easy shoes to fill. Obviously, they're not going to go out and try to play the same way [Jagr] does, but to fill in on that line and complement Mario, they played awesome."

So did the Penguins' penalty-killers. Buffalo got its only goal when Stu Barnes beat Johan Hedberg from the left dot at 14:44 of the second while Krzysztof Oliwa was serving a needless roughing minor, but that was all the Sabres managed in seven tries with the extra man.

The Penguins did nothing in four tries with the man-advantage -- Robert Lang scored at even-strength at 10:11 of the first period, and Kovalev closed out the scoring with an empty-netter 2.9 seconds before time ran out -- but they were more concerned with how many power plays the Sabres had.

"We were in the box a lot," Boughner said. "We're putting a ton of pressure on our penalty-kill."

True enough, but the Penguins have put even more on the Sabres. Lose Game 3, and Buffalo will be compelled to rebound from a 3-0 deficit, something only two teams in NHL playoff history have managed.

Which is not to suggest that the Penguins expect Buffalo to concede the two victories they'll need to reach the conference final for the first time since 1996.

"If you go home and expect to win by taking it easy, we're going to come back here, 2-2," Bergevin said. "We have to go home with the intention of winning one game: Game 3. That's all that matters."

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