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Penguins Off day has advantages for Penguins

Friday, May 04, 2001

By Dave Molinari, Post-Gazette Sports Writer

Johan Hedberg could have holed up in his hotel room yesterday and agonized over every detail of the Penguins' two most recent losses.

Penguins goaltender Johan Hedberg has a 1.86 goals-against average in 10 postseason games. (Peter Diana, Post-Gazette)

Or he could have spent the day with a VCR, going over miles of videotape in search of some flaw that has developed in his game the past few days.

But he did not see the point in obsessing about hockey. Or even thinking about it much, for that matter.

Which is why Hedberg planned to spend at least part of his day watching baseball at PNC Park.

"You need to clear your head a little bit sometimes," he said. "Especially when you lose."

Hedberg was one of several Penguins expected to attend the Pirates game against San Francisco last night, but a few others likely planned nothing more ambitious -- or strenuous -- than rolling over in bed.

Consider center Mario Lemieux, a Hall of Famer and the prototype for world-class forwards. Pretty nice credentials, but get past them and you have a 35-year-old who is playing about 26 minutes of high-energy hockey every time he reports to work.

That is why he isn't the least bit upset about having two days between the Penguins' 5-2 loss in Game 4 of their second-round series with Buffalo Wednesday and Game 5 at 1:08 p.m. tomorrow at HSBC Arena.

And why Lemieux strongly endorsed Coach Ivan Hlinka's decision to give the team a complete day off -- no meetings, no optional ice -- yesterday.

"A lot of guys are tired," Lemieux said. "It's just a grind in the playoffs. You have to come in here and, even if you don't skate, it's tough mentally. A good day off is going to help the team."

There could be a physical payoff, too, because while Jaromir Jagr's shoulder problem is the Penguins' most celebrated injury these days, it's hardly the only one. Forward Josef Beranek isn't is not playing because of what is believed to be an arm problem, and there has been a run on ice packs and elastic bandages.

"We have a lot of bumps and bruises," left winger Kevin Stevens said.

Having an extra 24 hours to rest -- and treat -- those injuries is an advantage inherent in having this extended break between games, and there might be a few others.

The Sabres, for example, got on a serious roll by winning Games 3 and 4 at Mellon Arena to negate losses in Games 1 and 2 at home. It's possible that a little of Buffalo's momentum will dissipate during the added time off.

More important, Hlinka and his staff will have an extra day to formulate tactical adjustments to counter wrinkles Sabres Coach Lindy Ruff and his assistants introduced when the series moved to Pittsburgh.

During the past two games, Buffalo has kept the Penguins' offense bogged down, while manufacturing many more scoring chances than it got during Games 1 and 2.

"We have to figure out how to play, because they did something different," Penguins defenseman Darius Kasparaitis said. "We have to figure out what they did, because they're playing good right now."

The Sabres have been able to stretch the Penguins' defense, creating unusually large gaps in coverages, and pick up considerable speed while moving through the neutral zone.

Consequently, the Penguins have spent a lot of time in their own end. And have not looked very good doing it.

"They're skating well, and they're trying to open the game up a little bit," Stevens said. "We're trying to sit back in our defensive mode, and it's been a struggle."

Buffalo's improved execution is not the Penguins' only cause for concern.

It was around this time last spring Ron Tugnutt's goaltending morphed from awesome to average and, coincidentally or otherwise, Hedberg turned in a thoroughly forgettable performance in Game 4.

He gave J.P. Dumont of the Sabres what Hedberg described as "a very bad goal" 88 seconds after the opening faceoff, and surrendered several high-risk rebounds. Most of which his teammates didn't bother to clear.

Buffalo has been using four lines to attack Hedberg, and the Sabres' depth likely was a factor in their domination of the third period during Games 3 and 4.

After outscoring Washington and Buffalo, 8-2, during the third period in their first eight playoff games, the Penguins gave up six unanswered goals during the final 20 minutes of the past two games.

"We run out of gas in the third period, especially when there are a lot of penalties," Lemieux said. "It's important for us to use our fourth line, try to get them in there six or seven minutes a game, so the top two lines have something left at the end.

"We're going to need everybody. This is the playoffs, and it's not going to be easy."

Reaching the conference final for the first time since 1996 will be infinitely tougher than it figured to be after the Penguins returned from Buffalo last weekend with two victories.

Still, most of them insist they are not unduly concerned, that they expected the series to be long and difficult and that they eliminated Washington in the first round after splitting the first four games.

Stevens said, "I wish we had a killer instinct," but pointed to the series against the Capitals as evidence the Penguins are not doomed just because they are tied, 2-2.

"We put ourselves in the same position against Washington," Stevens said. "So we're used to it."

The difference is that, in the first round, the Penguins and Capitals each went 1-1 in their first two games at home. This time, Buffalo has all the intangible benefits -- confidence, momentum, et al -- of rallying from a 2-0 deficit with a couple of victories on the road.

Hedberg smiled and said that "it certainly would be better to be up, 4-0," but was adamant that the Penguins are justifiably confident about their chances of surviving this series.

"I don't think there's any reason why we shouldn't be," he said. "We're tied, 2-2, in the second round of the playoffs. If we'd been down, 2-0, and won both of these [home] games, we'd feel great, being tied."

Whether Hedberg's teammates genuinely share that perspective is hard to say, but if they have stopped believing in themselves, it doesn't show. Not in their words, anyway.

"I have a lot of confidence in our team," defenseman Bob Boughner said. "I still think we can go into Buffalo and win a game, come back here and win the series in six."

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