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Penguins Penguins Report: 10/4/01

Thursday, October 04, 2001

By Dejan Kovacevic, Post-Gazette Sports Writer

LOOKING AHEAD

Penguins vs. Mighty Ducks of Anaheim, 7:38 p.m. Saturday, Mellon Arena. TV, radio: Fox Sports Net Pittsburgh; WWSW-FM (94.5), WBGG-AM (970).

NOTEBOOK

The Penguins scratched C Wayne Primeau (foot), D Janne Laukkanen (knee), D Hans Jonsson (foot), RW Krzysztof Oliwa and D John Jakopin. The Avalanche played without D Adam Foote (shoulder), RW Scott Parker, RW Brian Willsie and D Jaroslav Obsut.

The game was the NHL's first regular-season game in the United States since the terrorist attacks Sept. 11, and Penguins management draped a large American flag on the Downtown-facing side of the vacant hospital building across Centre Avenue that was purchased by the team earlier this year. Inside Mellon Arena, the team painted a red-white-and-blue ribbon on the ice behind each goal, placed dasher-board advertisements for the American Red Cross to encourage contributions, and distributed white T-shirts featuring the flag on one side and "United we stand" on the other to the capacity crowd of 17,148. Minutes before the game, the starters from the Penguins and Avalanche stood side by side at the red line as the crowd stood and chanted, "U.S.A.! U.S.A.!" Members of the Pennsylvania Air National Guard then presented flags for the national anthem, sung by Pittsburgh vocal group Pure Gold. "It's a special night, to have the opportunity to recognize the people hurt by the tragedies in New York, Washington and right here in Pennsylvania," C Mario Lemieux said. "That's why we wanted to have something planned, in memory of those people. It's special for everybody, for the people playing in this game and the people watching it."

The most obvious repercussions of the attacks were at the gates, where Mellon Arena officials implemented heightened security measures. Doug Hall, the building's general manager, said those included random sweeps throughout the facility by bomb-sniffing dogs, searches of bags, restricted parking and deliveries, extra training of staff for safety awareness and additional security and police officers. These policies will be in effect for all events at Mellon Arena.

Despite having tickets for the opener available as late as yesterday afternoon, the Penguins extended their sellout streak to 33, including eight games in the past Stanley Cup playoffs. That streak is unlikely to extend for more than another week, though. Nearly 3,000 tickets remain for the game Saturday against the Mighty Ducks and 4,000 for the game Wednesday against the Islanders. Still, 24 of the remaining 40 games are on pace to sell out, and team officials are optimistic that their only slow month will be October. Tom McMillan, vice president of communications and marketing, said the terrorist attacks were largely to blame. The Penguins sold 35,000 tickets in the week before the attacks, only 3,000 the following week. "And it wasn't just us, obviously," McMillan said. "We've talked to TicketMaster, and they said every team in the league and every event, even the Britney Spears concert coming up here, virtually just stopped selling for a week."

The Penguins' left-wing lock system officially was sent to the recycle bin last night. In its place, the team employed a strategy in which any forward, regardless of position, is responsible for helping the defense. One forward on each line is assigned to focus on these duties, but he's not solely responsible. For example, on the second line, it's C Robert Lang's job to pay the most attention to defense. But if he moves deep into the offensive zone, either LW Martin Straka or RW Alexei Kovalev must slide back. "It should allow us to have a little more pressure on the forecheck," Lang said. "Whoever is first just goes, and the other two guys have to read off that. It will be a little bit of an adjustment. But all of us are pretty bright guys, so it shouldn't take that long." Lang added that while the strategy is not ultraconservative, neither is it pond hockey. "It's not like some crazy, pressure-all-the-time system. You have to read off the situation. If they have absolute control of the puck behind their net, there's no point in going after them at 100 mph when they can beat you with one pass. It's more of a read-and-react system."

Lemieux began using a new stick, the Nike Quest 3, last night. It's a model made of composite wood that increases the shooter's velocity to the point many NHL goaltenders have complained about it. Lemieux's response? "Well, the skaters aren't complaining about the goaltenders' equipment being too big and not being able to see a lot of the net the past few years, so we have to equalize the playing field somehow. So, yeah, I've been working on a prototype from Nike the past couple of weeks, and I think I found one." Lemieux's one-timer already was among the league's hardest, but he said he's found another gear with the new stick. "A lot harder and a lot quicker," he said of his shot. "It comes off the blade a lot quicker, so I've seen a big, big difference, especially on the one-timer from the side. It's a lot quicker than it used to be."

Of the 19 Penguins who appeared in the game, four -- C Milan Kraft, C Toby Petersen, LW Kris Beech and D Andrew Ference -- played in an NHL season opener for the first time. "It helps that I was here for a little bit last year," Petersen said. He spent 12 games with the Penguins last season. "I was here for Mario's first game back, and that was a big deal. Something like that helps you calm your nerves a little bit. Still, it's pretty exciting." Lemieux warned that it could take time for the team's veterans to jell with the youngsters: "Every time you make changes, it takes time to adjust. Along with trading Jaromir Jagr, we've got a lot of new faces around here, guys who never played in the NHL before. Every time you have new linemates, new defensemen, it takes time for everyone to get used to it. There's a big difference in the speed of the game between here and in juniors or the minors."

Jakopin arrived to meet his new teammates at the morning skate but did not dress for the game. At 6 feet 5, 239 pounds, and with one goal in 82 NHL games over four seasons, he made no secret of what kind of role he plans to fill for the Penguins: "I've got to be physical. It's easy to talk about being physical, but your actions are what prove it. I have to take the body whenever I can. Everybody should bring what they have to the table, and that's what I have." Jakopin's lone goal came against the Penguins Dec. 20, 2000, as a member of the Panthers in a 2-2 tie at Sunrise, Fla. His shot -- the seventh of his career, in his 40th game -- beat G Rich Parent from the right-wing boards. Reminded of that, he laughed and said, "Yeah, I guess that would be my No. 1 memory of playing against the Penguins."

The crowd stood throughout the pregame player introductions, offering its loudest ovation, of course, for Lemieux. Not far behind, though, was D Darius Kasparaitis, who had a rancorous contract dispute this summer and could become an unrestricted free agent next July.

Two of the more clever signs hung by fans: "Jaromir who?" and "Kaspar owns Hasek; Roy is next." That latter was a reference to Kasparaitis' series-clinching goal against Sabres G Dominik Hasek in the playoffs this past spring.

MINOR-LEAGUE REPORT

WILKES-BARRE/SCRANTON begins its AHL season tonight against St. John's at First Union Arena.

WHEELING has an ECHL preseason game at 7:30 p.m. tomorrow against Johnstown at Iceoplex at Southpointe. Tickets are $5.

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