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Penguins Penguins slip past Sabres in 3-1 victory

Sunday, November 25, 2001

By Dave Molinari, Post-Gazette Sports Writer

After all they had been through in their previous two games, the Penguins had to be wondering what it would take for them to win again.

Turns out it didn't require anything special.

Penguins center Milan Kraft tries to get away from the Sabres' Curtis Brown last night at Mellon Arena. (Gene J. Puskar, Associated Press)

Well, nothing too special. Except a 26-save effort by goalie Johan Hedberg, a performance by the Penguins' defense corps that saw it sweep the game's three-star awards and, oh yeah, the goal rookie center Kris Beech has been waiting to score since sometime around his third birthday.

OK, so some of the ingredients in the Penguins' 3-1 victory against Buffalo at Mellon Arena last night were a bit unusual, but the Penguins were in no position to quibble about the mix.

Not when the victory bumped them back to .500 (9-9-3-2) for the season and prevented their two-game stumble, the by-product of discouraging losses to Vancouver and Nashville, from morphing into a genuine slump.

"[It was] very important, and everybody knew it," Hedberg said. "The efforts the last two games were terrible. ... We had to do whatever it takes to turn it around."

That included having defensemen Ian Moran, Michal Rozsival and Darius Kasparaitis earn recognition as the game's three stars, the first time in memory players from that position have done that in a Penguins game.

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Moran, who was chosen as a No. 1 star for the first time in his NHL career and a star for just the second time -- he was honored as the No. 2 star after Game 4 of the Penguins' first-round playoff series against Philadelphia in 1997 -- after scoring the Penguins' first goal and blocking a team-high five shots.

Rozsival was named the No. 2 star for assisting on the Penguins' final two goals and Kasparaitis was selected as No. 3 after blocking four shots and recording a team-high seven hits.

Having guys like that step up was critical, though, because the Penguins played without center Mario Lemieux for the fourth consecutive game and might be doing so for a while.

Lemieux is out because of pain stemming from arthroscopic hip surgery Oct. 29, and his short-term outlook is blurry, if not bleak.

Last week, Lemieux had targeted the game last night for his comeback, but after he made a discouraging return to the ice yesterday, team officials are reluctant to predict when he'll play again. He appears to be doubtful, at best, for a game against New Jersey Tuesday at Mellon Arena.

"He was out [ on the ice] for just a little while and didn't feel good," General Manager Craig Patrick said. "He's not responding right now."

Patrick declined to predict whether Lemieux would try to play against the Devils, saying only that, "he's day-to-day. It keeps lingering, not getting any better."

Patrick said he is unaware of anything that can be done to expedite Lemieux's comeback, that the treatment of choice for his problem continues to be "just rest."

Whatever rest Lemieux got last night looked like it might be awfully fitful after Alexei Zhitnik gave the Sabres a 1-0 lead with a five-on-three power play goal at 4:52 of the first period. The Penguins, after all, were averaging just two goals per game, and Buffalo can be awfully stingy.

But the Penguins finished the period with a 16-9 edge in shots and adjourned to the locker room reasonably confident in their chances of winning.

"We didn't crumble and come in at the end of the first down, 3-0, or fighting with each other," Moran said.

Moran subsequently tied the score at 5:32 of the second, when he snapped a wrist shot over the glove of Sabres goalie Martin Biron for his first goal since April 8.

"Ian's goal really gave us confidence," Hedberg said.

Jan Hrdina then got what proved to be the winner -- to say nothing of his third goal in the past four games -- at 16:19, as he charged toward the net and steered in a feed from Aleksey Morozov, who was in the left circle.

Rozsival picked up the second assist on Hrdina's goal and figured in on the one Beech scored at 12:30 of the third.

Beech collected a Rozsival rebound and threw a backhander past Biron from the inner edge of the right circle for his first goal in 27 NHL games.

"It was nice to get that over with," said Beech, who allowed that he'd been waiting "awhile" to score it. "I want to score every game, and that's the longest I've ever been without scoring a goal."

In at least one way, though, it might have been worth the wait, because Beech's parents have been in town since Tuesday and got to see him score.

"That's great that they're here to see it," Beech said. "I couldn't have asked for anything better."

Well, nothing except that maybe they got to see him score in a victory. Especially one that pulled the Penguins out of what could have deteriorated into a major free fall.

"This was a huge game," Beech said. "We hadn't been playing very well. We were really bad in the last two [games]. To come out strong here was a positive thing."

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