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Penguins Injuries put Sabres in difficult situation

Monday, April 30, 2001

By Dejan Kovacevic, Post-Gazette Sports Writer

The Buffalo Sabres don't need rose-colored glasses to see their chances of beating the Penguins in the Stanley Cup playoffs.

They need 3-D glasses.

The kind which would allow them to imagine they can win despite having three defensemen injured.


On top of having three defensemen ailing, the Sabres must overcome a lackluster recent history in Pittsburgh. They are 1-8-3 in their past 12 at Mellon Arena.

Nov. 12, 1996Lost, 3-0
Dec. 28, 1996Lost, 2-0
March 18, 1997Lost, 5-3
Nov. 8, 1997Tied, 2-2
Nov. 24, 1997Lost, 5-1
March 14, 1998Lost, 2-1
Feb. 2, 1999Lost, 5-3
March 27, 1999Tied, 1-1
Nov. 16, 1999Lost, 3-2
Feb. 16, 2000Tied, 1-1
Dec. 2, 2000Won, 3-2
March 27, 2001Lost, 4-1


"It's that time of year when adversity slaps you in the face, and you've got to come up big," Coach Lindy Ruff said after Buffalo's practice yesterday at HSBC Arena. "Throughout the year, we've had situations where key defensemen were out and we still managed to get some victories."

True, but the Sabres didn't face anything like this.

Jay McKee will sit out Game 3 of the Sabres' second-round series with the Penguins tonight at Mellon Arena. And if Alexei Zhitnik or Richard Smehlik makes it onto the ice, it will be at far less than full capacity.

The only regular defensemen who are healthy are James Patrick, Rhett Warrener, Jason Woolley and Dmitri Kalinin.

"We're missing some big-time players," Warrener said. "But it's time for everybody else to step up."

McKee, knocked out of Game 2 Saturday with a mild concussion, could miss the rest of the series. He lined up Penguins center Mario Lemieux for an open-ice hit near the red line but got the worst of it and fell hard into the boards. Doctors told him yesterday he is not allowed to resume skating for a week, meaning he probably could not come back even if the series were extended to seven games.

"Mario's head snapped off the side of Jay's helmet and got Jay right in the cheek," Ruff said. "They both took a pretty good shot there. It was a determined play on Jay's part to step up and send a message."

Zhitnik, the corps' most gifted member, also has a mild concussion, his coming from a crushing hit by Penguins right winger Alexei Kovalev. He did not skate with the Sabres yesterday, but he wants to give it a shot tonight, describing his status as "70 to 75 percent."

"I've had concussions that were much worse, and I played in two or three days," Zhitnik said. "It could be much worse. I feel pretty good."

Those injuries, coupled with Buffalo's 2-0 series deficit, are prompting some desperate moves.

The most prominent is that Smehlik probably will be forced back into action. Smehlik, perhaps the Sabres' best defensive defenseman, skated yesterday for the first time since April 19, when his ankle was injured in Game 5 of the first-round series against the Philadelphia Flyers.

"We could maybe push him into duty," Ruff said. "We've got to weigh the fact of putting a guy in who might not be quite healthy against a guy who is healthy."

Buffalo also could dress minor-league defensemen Doug Houda and Brian Campbell.

Houda, 34, spent the entire season with the Rochester Americans, the Sabres' American Hockey League affiliate. He has played 560 NHL games, but only four in the past three years and none this season. He has appeared in one playoff game, in 1992 as a member of the Hartford Whalers.

Campbell, 21, was Buffalo's sixth-round pick in the 1997 NHL Entry Draft. He has played in 20 NHL games, including eight this season, but spent the rest of the year in Rochester.

To win tonight, the Sabres are certain to need several surprises, perhaps including strong performances from those two defensemen or the ones who might play with injuries. They also will need consistent backchecking from their forwards, considerably more restraint in trying to line up big hits, continued success in the faceoff circles and, without a doubt, goaltender Dominik Hasek's best showing of these playoffs.

During the regular season, Buffalo was a model of defensive excellence, recording 13 shutouts and winning the William Jennings Trophy by allowing a league-low 184 goals. But all that came when the team had its health, having lost only 110 man-games to injury all year, third-fewest in the NHL.

This scenario, as the Sabres realize, is drastically different, no matter how hard they try to view their woes in the best possible light.

"I think our defense is good, even without these players," Hasek said. "I believe we can still do it without them. For sure, we are not in a very good position right now, but all we can control is to go in their building and win the next game. We have no choice."

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