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Penguins Penguins Report: 5/7/01

Monday, May 07, 2001

Compiled by Dave Molinari and Dejan Kovacevic

LOOKING AHEAD

Game 6: Sabres vs. Penguins, 7:08 p.m. tomorrow, Mellon Arena. TV, radio: Fox Sports Net Pittsburgh; WWSW-FM (94.5), WBGG-AM (970).

PENGUINS NOTEBOOK

Coach Ivan Hlinka gave his players a day off yesterday. They will practice at 11 a.m. today at Mellon Arena.

Facing a 3-2 deficit in their second-round series against the Sabres puts the Penguins at a disadvantage, but precedent suggests it doesn't necessarily doom them. The Penguins have been behind after five games on nine previous occasions and rebounded to win Games 6 and 7 four times.

Buffalo altered the course of the past two games by scoring during a Penguins power play -- "Two games in a row, we've given up a short-handed goal that's really come back to bite us in the butt," D Ian Moran said -- and renewed the debate about the merits, and perils, of using forwards Martin Straka and Alexei Kovalev on the points of the No. 1 power-play unit. Most teams use a defenseman -- or two -- there to minimize the chances of giving up a goal. Hlinka, though, prefers to have Straka and Kovalev there because their shooting and puckhandling skills are so superior to those of any Penguins defenseman. C Mario Lemieux said, "It's a tough call," over whether Hlinka should use a defenseman on the point, but Kovalev was adamant that no adjustments are needed: "We've been playing like that all season," he said. "I don't see why we should change."

The Penguins are among the most-penalized teams in these playoffs, averaging 14.4 minutes per game, and it's not because they're punishing the Sabres physically. Not unless there's something about being hooked, held or tackled that exacts a terrible toll from opposing players. The Penguins' penchant for taking penalties peaked during the second period of their 3-2 overtime loss in Game 5 when they were left short-handed four times in less than eight minutes. "It was kind of ridiculous in the second period," G Johan Hedberg said. "We were in the [penalty] box the whole time."

Although it's hard to say how much the Penguins' psyches were damaged by losing Game 5 Saturday at HSBC Arena -- "After you lose in overtime in the playoffs, it's obviously pretty tough, but we have to bounce back," Hedberg said -- their one cause for encouragement is that they upgraded their five-on-five play significantly. They established a much more effective forecheck, especially early, and were able to disrupt Buffalo's offense in the neutral zone, creating turnovers and consistently sending play back into the Sabres' end. "Even though we lost, we played much better than we had the last two games," Moran said. "We executed a lot better than we had been."

One of hockey's most treasured adages contends that 2-0 is the most dangerous lead, and the Penguins aren't likely to argue the point. Not after they failed to protect a 2-0 advantage in Game 5, to say nothing of a 2-0 lead in the series. Then again, the Penguins aren't faring very well when things are tied, 2-2, either. That's happened in each of the past three games, all of which have been won by the Sabres. Included in that group, of course, is Game 5, when Buffalo broke a 2-2 deadlock in the series.

It's no fluke that Sabres C Stu Barnes scored back-to-back winners. He not only has excellent skills, but is adept at reading -- and reacting to -- plays. That was proven again Saturday, when a harmless-looking two-on-two rush by Buffalo led to thewinning goal after Barnes followed his linemates across the blue line, collected a drop pass from J.P. Dumont and threw a shot over Hedberg's glove. "It's being in the right place at the right time," D Bob Boughner said. "And Stu's always had a knack for scoring." Barnes underscored that during the past three games, accumulating four goals. "He's had a great series," Lemieux said.

RW Jaromir Jagr can offer some brutally candid opinions, but if he believes the Penguins have no hope of making it to the next round, it doesn't show. He figures that if the Penguins can survive Game 6 -- no small feat, since they're 2-3 at home, including two losses to the Sabres -- they will have legitimate cause for optimism. "It's not like we can't win [in Buffalo]," Jagr said. "We have to get the first one at home, tie it 3-3. Then, anything can happen."

Third-line C Wayne Primeau, who began his NHL career with the Sabres, is a popular target of criticism in Buffalo, but he has had a fairly strong series, picking up a goal and an assist and winning 48 of 98 faceoffs. "Wayne has filled a pretty good niche for them," Buffalo Coach Lindy Ruff said. "I think his faceoff percentage has gotten a lot better, he's a great skater. He's added some size to that lineup. He's added grit. It's been a pretty good fit for him."

SABRES NOTEBOOK

Coach Lindy Ruff gave the Sabres a day off yesterday. The team is scheduled to practice today at HSBC Arena, then travel to Pittsburgh for Game 6. D Jay McKee (concussion) could be cleared to resume skating, but it's highly unlikely he will return to play in this series. LW Erik Rasmussen (shoulder) received medical clearance to play, but Ruff has expressed reluctance to tinker with a winning lineup.

The main reason Rasmussen likely won't play tomorrow is that LW Vladimir Tsyplakov has been a solid contributor to the Sabres' checking line in his absence, having clicked with C Curtis Brown and RW Vaclav Varada. "I'm telling you, he stepped in and has definitely been one of the unsung heroes," Brown said. "He's created a lot of chances for us, played strong defensively. As valuable as Erik is to the line -- he's a very physical force -- Vladimir's done a tremendous job. He's very smart, has great patience. He's a bit of a wily old veteran." Tsyplakov, 32, has one goal in these playoffs.

The Sabres aren't worried about many aspects of their game, but the power play remains an area of concern. They went 1 for 8 in Game 5 and got only six shots on Penguins G Johan Hedberg, and they are 3 for 28 in the series. "We didn't execute very well on the power play," Ruff said. "I thought we made some errant passes and ended up with the puck along the wall a lot. We didn't get a lot of control time." D Alexei Zhitnik credited the Penguins: "Pittsburgh's playing some pretty tight penalty-killing. You don't have time to settle the puck and look around and make some nice plays. You've got to do everything quickly."

Since being formed for Game 3, Buffalo's second unit of C Stu Barnes, LW Jean-Pierre Dumont and RW Donald Audette has three even-strength goals. In that same span, the Penguins' No. 2 line of C Robert Lang, LW Martin Straka and RW Alexei Kovalev has none. They generally have been matched up against each other, but Dumont declined to suggest his line has had the upper hand. "I don't want to say that," he said. "They're a really good line. We're just trying to do our jobs, score some big goals and make sure they don't score against us."

Despite having won three in a row, the Sabres are being extra careful not to light a fire under the Penguins by showing any disrespect. One example came after Game 5, when D Rhett Warrener, who has been matched against the Penguins' top line for most of the series, was asked if his team is getting the better of C Mario Lemieux and RW Jaromir Jagr. "Are you trying to stir the pot here?" Warrener replied. "We're going out and working hard. That's all. I hope we can continue to do that. The only thing we can control is our work ethic."

Barnes, on having a 3-2 series lead: "We haven't accomplished anything yet. We all feel that way. You enjoy winning for a couple of hours, if that, and then start thinking about the next one. That's a very, very dangerous team over there. They have too many weapons to take lightly. For those of us who have played with those guys in the past, we know what they're made of."

Buffalo has had a 3-2 lead in a best-of-seven series twice in its history, and both times the Sabres won Game 6. The first came in the second round of the 1975 playoffs against the Canadiens, the second 14 years later in the same round against the Bruins.

MINOR-LEAGUE REPORT

Sunday's result

WILKES-BARRE/SCRANTON (8-4) did not play. The Baby Penguins opened the Western Conference final of the AHL's Calder Cup playoffs with a 2-1, overtime victory Saturday against Hershey at Wilkes-Barre's First Union Arena. Game 2 is at 7:35 p.m. today at the same venue. C Billy Tibbetts scored the winning goal, his third of the postseason, at 4:04 of overtime. It was the Baby Penguins' first game without C Milan Kraft, who was promoted to the Penguins Friday. "It took us a little bit longer because we didn't have Kraft," Coach Glenn Patrick said in jest. "We had to go into overtime to win it, but we still did the job. We got it done. It was a great effort from start to finish."

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