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Penguins Penguins tie Buffalo, 4-4, to halt 7-game losing skid

Thursday, April 11, 2002

By Dave Molinari, Post-Gazette Sports Writer

This is the time of year when players will tape up a compound fracture and not miss a shift. When the noise level in arenas is slightly higher than inside a jet engine. When testosterone and adrenaline flow as freely as perspiration and blood.

Sabres goaltender Martin Biron stops a shot by Milan Kraft in the first period last night at Mellon Arena. (John Heller, Post-Gazette)

Penguins Report

At least that's how it is in games that matter.

Things are a bit different in the ones that don't, like the Penguins' 4-4 tie with Buffalo last night at Mellon Arena.

Each team has been eliminated from playoff contention, and it showed. For 65 minutes. Sixty-five interminable minutes.

How riveting was it? A television in the Buffalo TV booth crew was tuned to the Philadelphia-New Jersey game, not the one the crew was broadcasting.

How competitive was it? Word that the teams had been credited with a total of 21 hits caused one observer to wonder if the off-ice official charged with keeping track of that statistic had a twitch in his clicking finger.

Forgettable as the game was, it did serve a purpose for the Penguins, halting their losing streak at seven games. They haven't endured an eight-game skid since Jan. 26-Feb. 18, 1985.

"It stopped the bleeding, a little bit," said goalie Johan Hedberg, who stopped all nine shots he faced after replacing Jean-Sebastien Aubin at 7:06 of the third period. "At least we got a point out of it."

Aubin left the game with a bruised right shoulder at 7:06 and said he doesn't know if he'll be available for his scheduled start in the season finale Saturday in Boston.

Aubin was injured early in the third period when he struck the goal post with his shoulder, then took a shot in the same spot a few seconds later.

"That's about as unlucky as you can get," said Aubin, who has qualified for an advanced degree in ill fortune this season.

Actually, simply being called upon to start this game wasn't a very good break for Aubin or his Buffalo counterpart, Martin Biron. Not when so few players on either side cared to expend any energy in the defensive zone.

"Both teams skated hard," Penguins winger Ville Nieminen said. "But only one way."

The result was a game in which the teams combined for 78 shots and missed the net with 26 more.

"It was maybe a little bit of river hockey at times, up and down the ice," said Penguins winger Jeff Toms, who scored the tying goal. "That would be what you'd expect with two teams out of the playoffs."

Forget river hockey. The teams could have played this game on the Arctic Ocean and not had any more open ice.

"For a period of time, I thought I was coaching the All-Star Game again," Buffalo Coach Lindy Ruff said.

An easy mistake to make. Except, of course, for the almost total lack of All-Stars on either team.

That was true, at least in part, because the Penguins played without nine regulars for the second game in a row. Even as Alexei Kovalev (hip) returned to the lineup, Shean Donovan (elbow) left it.

The Penguins (28-39-8-5) are tied with Nashville and Anaheim for the No. 5 slot in the NHL's draft lottery, which will be Tuesday. The first tiebreaker is victories; the Mighty Ducks have 29, one more than the Penguins and Predators.

The game attracted a late-arriving crowd of 12,724. So late-arriving that a few thousand of the fans apparently won't reach the building until the home finale tomorrow night against Toronto. Or maybe October.

The attendance figure did not include the two coaches from the Penguins' minor-league team, Glenn Patrick and Mike Yeo. They got a chance to see numerous players they had watched for much of the year -- and several others they can expect to be working with this fall.

Miroslav Satan (5:55) and Richard Smehlik (11:54) staked Buffalo to a 2-0 lead in the first period, before Kris Beech got the Penguins back into it at 14:28 with his 10th of the season.

Kovalev rewarded a couple of stellar stops by Aubin with a tying goal at 7:41 of the second, when he blew a shot over Biron's shoulder from inside the left circle for his 31st.

But Chris Gratton put Buffalo back in front, 3-2, at 9:26, and Satan struck again during a two-on-one break at 17:41.

Buffalo is a pretty fair defensive team -- the Sabres were 28-2-3 in games they led after 40 minutes before last night -- but it didn't make any particular effort to protect its advantage, and Randy Robitaille pulled the Penguins within one 59 seconds into the third.

The Penguins then salvaged a point -- and ended their losing streak -- on a Toms goal at 13:01, when he took a pass from Tom Kostopoulos and shoveled a high backhander by Biron for his ninth of the season and second in 12 games since being claimed on waivers from the New York Rangers.

Each team had chances to get a go-ahead goal after that -- Nieminen missed a mostly open net from close range as the period was winding down -- and neither seemed reluctant to trade scoring chances, right up until the moment overtime expired.

"It was fun to plan an open-doors game," Nieminen said. "But it was just two teams who didn't deserve to be in the playoffs."

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