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Penguins Penguins, Hedberg shut out Sabres, 2-0

Friday, January 11, 2002

By Dave Molinari, Post-Gazette Sports Writer

BUFFALO -- Nobody pretended that the Penguins' victory at HSBC Arena last night was as important as their previous one here.

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Darius Kasparaitis didn't celebrate their 2-0 win against Buffalo with a belly-flop at center ice, and his teammates didn't pile on top of him when the game was over.

After all, no victory in Game 44 of the regular season can begin to rival one in Game 7 of a playoff series. Let alone an overtime victory, like the one Kasparaitis clinched by throwing a shot past then-Sabres goalie Dominik Hasek last May 10.

But as midseason victories go, the two points the Penguins (16-20-5-2) got last night are as precious and satisfying as any they have earned this season. Not only for their tangible value, but for the way the Penguins got them.

The way goalie Johan Hedberg stopped all 36 Buffalo shots. The way the Penguins, who have had to play from behind all season, scored in the opening minute of the game. The way they were able to generate an insurance goal when the Sabres were pressing as time ran down.

"This was a huge win for us," Hedberg said. "Hopefully, we can get on a little roll here."

If they do, it likely will be, at least in part, because Hedberg is able to play at -- or at least near -- the level he reached while recording his fifth shutout of the season, two shy of Tom Barrasso's team record.

And even though Hedberg deflects praise almost as deftly as he turned aside pucks last night, he smiled at one point and allowed that, "if I get a shutout, we should at least get a tie."

Hedberg got a few breaks last night -- a Stu Barnes shot slammed off the goal post behind him, and Buffalo had a goal waved off after a video review determined the puck had been knocked into the net with a high stick -- but no one suggested he should be embarrassed about collecting his shutout bonus.

"He was unbelievable," Penguins right winger Stephane Richer said.

The Penguins' victory moved them into a tie with Buffalo for tenth place in the Eastern Conference, six points behind eighth-place New Jersey. And before they focus on the Devils, the Penguins have to worry about getting past Montreal and Washington.

"Hopefully, we can get on a little roll here," Hedberg said. "Get a couple of wins in a row and get back in the pack."

Their chances of pulling that off got a significant boost yesterday morning, when center Mario Lemieux, who has missed 24 consecutive games because of a hip problem, confirmed that he'll be in the lineup when the Penguins face St. Louis tomorrow at 1:08 p.m. at Mellon Arena.

Shortly before the game, however, the Penguins learned that center Wayne Primeau will miss the rest of the season after undergoing surgery to repair a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee, which was injured during a 2-0 loss in Chicago Sunday.

Primeau, who team medical officials said should be ready to play well before the start of next season, had a goal in each of the two games that preceded his injury and had been centering an effective third line for Dan LaCouture and Tom Kostopoulos

"[Primeau] was probably playing his best hockey since he came to Pittsburgh," Coach Rick Kehoe said. "He was taking key faceoffs for us, playing regularly and he was just starting to score some goals. It was almost like he was getting over the hump."

Coincidentally enough, the Penguins' first goal was made possible by a clean faceoff win. Forty-six seconds into the game, Randy Robitaille controlled a draw against Curtis Brown, pulling the puck to Richer in the right side of the slot.

"Teams try that all the time," Robitaille said. "But it's pretty much got to be a perfect [play]. He's not going to have a lot of time, so, when it gets there, you have to shoot it right away. And I have to win the draw, get it in a good spot for him."

Robitaille did his part, and Richer did his, blowing the puck past Sabres goalie Martin Biron to give the Penguins a 1-0 lead for just the 16th time this season.

"We haven't had the lead very much this year," Kehoe said. "It was nice to get that first goal."

Hedberg, for one, was downright elated. After watching his team strain to overcome deficits so many times, he liked seeing them get a chance to protect a lead.

"I was so happy when we got that," he said. "I've been thinking more and more about how big the first goal is."

Hedberg made sure it was the only goal the Penguins would need, although they were the beneficiaries of a video review with 2.7 seconds to go before the second intermission, when it was ruled that Denis Hamel of the Sabres had chopped the puck into the net with his stick above the cross bar.

"That was a big break for us," Kehoe said.

That reprieve -- along with a few more stellar stops by Hedberg and a breakaway goal by Robert Lang at 18:40 of the third -- was all the Penguins needed to secure two critical points. And to rekindle their hopes that they can creep back toward the Eastern playoff pack.

"You just look at it like we still have half a season," forward Jan Hrdina said. "That's what keeps us positive, thinking that we can turn it around. It's only half a season. We still have a long way to go."

And, beginning tomorrow, they might have a guy capable of carrying them every now and then during the trip ahead. Lemieux's return comes with no guarantees, but a lot of promise.

"The Big Guy's coming back," Richer said. "Hopefully, we're going to start winning some hockey games."

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