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Penguins Ference struggling with new partners, postseason ghosts

Monday, December 24, 2001

By Dave Molinari, Post-Gazette Sports Writer

Andrew Ference of the Penguins didn't spend much time in the NHL last season. He didn't have to.

Andrew Ference's assignment over the weekend included shadowing former teammate Jaromir Jagr, now a member of the Washington Capitals. (Gene J. Puskar, Associated Press)

For while Ference didn't get steady work with the Penguins until late February, he still managed to help them qualify for the Stanley Cup playoffs with his solid two-way play in the stretch drive.

For an encore, Ference was a major contributor in their victories against two higher-seeded opponents, Washington and Buffalo, in the first two rounds.

In the process, Ference raised expectations to a ridiculously high level for a 22-year-old who started this season with just 66 regular-season NHL games on his resume.

"What he did last year, he played extremely well," said Penguins assistant coach Randy Hillier, who oversees the defense. "The negative to that -- if there's a negative -- for him is that he set a [standard]. Expectations were high, certainly for him, but for us, as well.

 
 
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Penguins Report: 12/24/01

   
 

"We watched him do a lot of good things, and it kind of left us with an impression in our minds that that was what we would expect of him this year."

But while Ference has done some decent things this season -- he responded quite well to being paired with Josef Melichar and matched against Jaromir Jagr in the Penguins' home-and-home series with Washington over the weekend -- he hasn't consistently played at, or often near, the level he reached so much of the time in the closing months of 2000-01.

Not, as Ference pointed out, that it necessarily was realistic to believe that he would. Not every night, at least.

"That just doesn't last," he said. "There are only a few guys in the history of hockey -- [Wayne] Gretzky, [Mario] Lemieux, those guys -- who stay at the top of their game forever. There are ups-and-downs for everybody."

Last season, Ference avoided most of the downs, in part, because his ability to move the puck to the forwards dovetailed nicely with the need Lemieux and Jagr have for someone to get it to them. What's more, he knew better than to simply stand back and admire what those guys did after he gave them the puck.

"Andy can move the puck quick, and he can get up on the play," Hillier said. "When you play with that caliber of player, they attract crowds and you need jump into holes, and Andy did a good job of that."

He probably would be doing it again this season, too, except Jagr is laboring in Washington these days, and Lemieux has spent a lot more time in the training room than on the ice.

"We don't have the same personnel," Hillier said. "We don't have the same team. It's been an adjustment that way, for all of us. We just have a different team now. I think he's trying to feel his way. Things clicked last year, and they're not clicking quite as well this year."

Ference acknowledged that "offensively, we're a different team, and it's affected all of us," but in the early part of this season, his play didn't seem to reflect that reality.

He was making some bad decisions, seemingly rooted in his desire to make good things happen. Trouble is, plays that were worth trying when he was working with the likes of Lemieux and Jagr became low-percentage gambles after circumstances separated them.

Ference's game slipped so far out of sync that he was a healthy scratch for the Penguins' 3-1 victory Nov. 24 against Buffalo, something that would have been unthinkable at the start of the season.

Ference, though clearly disappointed at being held out of that game, chose to view it as a professional action, not a personal affront.

"It was more of a regroup," he said. "I don't think it was necessarily a matter of playing horrible hockey. I think it was more of just a matter of the coaches doing their job, seeing a guy who maybe needed a mental refocus."

The primary message Hillier wanted to deliver was that Ference's top priority had to be trying to prevent goals, not produce them. The Penguins don't expect much offense from their defensemen -- Ference's goal and four assists this season are about the norm -- but need for them to be steady in their own zone.

"First things first," Hillier said. "Our end is the primary concern. If he takes care of that, the other part of the game will come. ... He is a defenseman. He has to play well defensively.

"I wouldn't classify Andy as an offensive defenseman -- I'd classify him as a guy who has pretty decent offensive skill -- but when things aren't going well offensively, like what was anticipated, they need to get playing well in their own end."

That truth registered with Ference and influences the way he approaches his work.

"I can enter games now not having to worry about trying to create offense," he said. "[Focus] more on just trying to do my job."

That undoubtedly would be easier if Ference had had a steady partner this season, but injuries and experiments have compelled him to work alongside just about every defenseman on the depth chart.

"There's new communication with every guy, new tendencies with every guy, and just the chemistry," Ference said. "People talk about chemistry, be it for forwards or defense, and that's kind of a [hard-to-calculate] factor, where you know where the guy's going to be, and exactly what to be [because of] what he's doing.

"So many factors go into it. If you don't have that, it's tough playing very basic hockey. The flow just isn't there."

Mastering Ference's position generally takes a full five years, and he understands that, but it doesn't mean he easily accepts performing at anything less than his absolute best.

"Andy's a competitive guy, and I know his expectations for himself are very high," Hillier said. "And I like that. There's nothing wrong with that. He's a motivated kid. He wants to do well. He expects to do well."

Ference should. After all, he's done it before. And not so long ago.

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