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Penguins Penguins expect nasty edge of Game 2 to carry over

Monday, April 30, 2001

By Dave Molinari, Post-Gazette Sports Writer

The official stat sheet from the Penguins' 3-1 victory in Buffalo Saturday listed 58 hits.

Alexei Kovalev gets his helmet adjusted by Sabres defenseman James Patrick in Game 2 Saturday. (Peter Diana, Post-Gazette)

How many of those were recorded on seismographs tucked in various corners of the continent isn't known.

Probably no more than, oh, 56 or so.

As Game 2 of this second-round playoff series approached, the Sabres made no secret of their intention to hit the Penguins at every opportunity. Buffalo did everything but post that message on billboards outside HSBC Arena.

"They talked a lot before the game about how they were going to come out and try to dominate us physically," Penguins defenseman Bob Boughner said.

On one level, the Sabres' strategy paid off: After being credited with 32 hits during a 3-0 loss in the series-opener, Buffalo bumped its total to 39 for Game 2. That, according to the stat-keepers, was 20 more than the Penguins had.

But, as the final score suggests, all that contact didn't faze the Penguins. What's more, it was the Sabres who lost valuable personnel -- defensemen Alexei Zhitnik and Jay McKee -- because of on-ice collisions that led to concussions.

Zhitnik, who was dropped by a crushing hit from Penguins winger Alexei Kovalev, likely will be in uniform for Game 3 tonight at 7:08 at Mellon Arena. Indications, however, are that McKee, who was hurt when he threw himself into Penguins center Mario

 
 
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Lemieux, will be kept off the ice for about a week.

McKee, like Zhitnik, is one of the Sabres' most accomplished and enthusiastic body-checkers, but even without him, Buffalo isn't likely to abandon its strategy of pounding the Penguins whenever possible.

"They're going to play physical," Penguins left winger Kevin Stevens said. "It's the only way they can play us, I think."

The Sabres don't necessarily share that perspective, but when the stakes are so high -- and individual fuses have gotten so short -- there's no reason to anticipate 60 minutes of civility.

"It will probably just get worse," Penguins utilityman Ian Moran said. "Honestly, the more you play guys, the more you build up that hatred. I think it's just going to get worse and worse."

Game 1, which had neither the look nor the feel of the playoffs, was relatively tranquil. Oh, Zhitnik crushed Kovalev early in the third period and Buffalo winger Steve Heinze bowled over goalie Johan Hedberg, but the game lacked the nasty edge evident Saturday.

"It wasn't really physical," Moran said. "There wasn't a lot of cheap stuff, not a whole lof of stuff behind the play. Then you could see [during Game 2], as the game went on, there was more. At every whistle, there was something going on. That's good."

Kovalev authored the monster hit of Game 2, but the one McKee put on Lemieux, whom he slammed into in the neutral zone, was a legitimate silver medalist.

Lemieux actually claimed to have been knocked out for "a couple of seconds," but after establishing a few key truths -- like who, and where, he was -- Lemieux hustled back into the play.

"I've had worse before," he said.

Truth be told, the only enduring impact of McKee's hit -- other than likely knocking McKee out of the series -- was to sharpen Lemieux's focus and ratchet his resolve up a notch or so.

"He is who he is for a reason," Penguins defenseman Marc Bergevin said.

Over the course of 97 career playoff games, Lemieux has come to understand that absorbing an occasional big hit is one of the sacrifices that has to be made for success in the post-season.

"In the playoffs, if you're not ready to take it, you might as well go home," he said. "You have to be ready to battle, and it is a battle for two months.

"The guys who get to the end will tell you that it's not easy. You have to be strong physically and also mentally. If you're not strong mentally, you're not going to make it."

The Penguins have emphasized finesse for more than a decade and, for some of that time, could be knocked off their game by an opponent willing to punish them physically.

They still would prefer to play a game that puts the emphasis on skill -- imagine what guys like Lemieux and Kovalev and Jaromir Jagr could create in a no-contact setting -- but now have personnel comfortable in the kind of physical game Buffalo figures to play tonight.

"I'm sure they're going to come out the same [as Game 2], but we have guys who can play that style," Boughner said. "We changed the team up with trades and whatnot. We have guys who can dish it out, and we have guys who can take it."

And, the Penguins contend, guys who can exploit the scoring chances that will result if the Sabres become preoccupied with slamming into them.

"If they get running around and really try to be physical, that's what we want," Moran said. "Because they'll get out of position and we can capitalize on odd-man breaks."

That seems unlikely, though. Buffalo will be justifiably desperate -- a loss tonight would all but formally end the Sabres' season -- but won't necessarily lose its discipline.

Indeed, at least some of the Penguins believe that getting the two victories they need to reach the Eastern Conference final will be even more difficult than earning their first two against the Sabres.

"It was tough against Washington, and it's going to get tougher against Buffalo," Bergevin said. "That's the way it's got to be."

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