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Penguins Penguins Report: 4/11/02

Thursday, April 11, 2002

By Dejan Kovacevic, Post-Gazette Sports Writer

LOOKING AHEAD

Penguins vs. Toronto Maple Leafs, 7:38 p.m. tomorrow, Mellon Arena. TV, radio: Fox Sports Net; WWSW-FM (94.5), WBGG-AM (970).

NOTEBOOK

The Penguins scratched C Mario Lemieux (hip), C Robert Lang (hand), C Kent Manderville (ankle), C Wayne Primeau (knee), LW Martin Straka (ankle), RW Shean Donovan (elbow), D Ian Moran (hip), D Michal Rozsival (groin), D Josef Melichar (shoulder) and LW Krzysztof Oliwa. RW Alexei Kovalev (hip) returned after missing one game. The Sabres played without C Stu Barnes (concussion), LW Slava Kozlov (heel), LW J-P Dumont (clavicle), D Brian Campbell (shoulder), RW Ales Kotalik and D James Patrick.

A little less than a year ago, the Penguins and Sabres dueled in a fiercely contested second-round Stanley Cup playoff series that wasn't decided until overtime of Game 7. This year, neither team will participate in the postseason. "Yeah, things change," Buffalo D Jay McKee said. "Obviously, Pittsburgh's been hit by a lot of injuries. If they had everybody going, I'm sure they'd be right in the middle of the playoff bunch. And with us, we've had trouble with consistency. It's hard to believe that both teams are having an early summer." It didn't help either team, of course, that each traded away its star player for prospects, the Sabres sending G Dominik Hasek to the Red Wings and the Penguins sending RW Jaromir Jagr to the Capitals. "Losing Jagr hurt them, no question. But I still think that if Lemieux, Straka and Lang get hurt, having Jagr here wouldn't have put them in. That's just too much to lose," McKee said. "For us, losing Dom was big. He was a huge part of our team for many years. We wanted to create our own identity without him -- that's something we talked about -- but we just couldn't do it."

The Penguins' most important event of the pending off-season could be Tuesday, when they will participate in the NHL Entry Draft lottery for the first time. In the weighted system used by the league, all 14 teams are in the lottery, but no team can move up more than four positions. As a result, only the teams with the five worst records are eligible for the No. 1 pick, widely expected to be Canadian D Jay Bouwmeester. The team that finishes with the worst record, virtually a lock to be the Thrashers, has a 25 percent chance of winning. It then drops to 18.8 percent, then 14.2, 10.7 and 8.1 for the team that finishes with the fifth-worst record, the spot now occupied by the Penguins. Only once since the lottery began in 1995 has the team with the fifth-worst record won the No. 1 pick.

Kovalev scored his 31st goal, giving him four points in his past four games and 75 for the season. That is 20 fewer points than he had last season, but he has missed 11 more games. Sabres D Alexei Zhitnik was Kovalev's teammate on the Russian Olympic team, and he said his up-close view in Salt Lake City elevated his appreciation of Kovalev's skills: "He's a great player, and he had a great year. He was injured for a month, and he had to play without Mario and Jagr, and he still got all those points. I think he is showing everybody right now how great of a player he is."

RW Aleksey Morozov has been stuck on 19 goals for seven games in a row, leaving the Penguins with only two players with 20 or more, Kovalev and LW Jan Hrdina. The only other seasons in which they had two or fewer were 1967-68, 1968-69 and 1979-80. The Penguins twice have had nine 20-goal scorers, in 1974-75 and 1989-90.

Barnes, a popular player for the Penguins in 1996-99, had hoped to return to the lineup last night for the first time since March 17, but a recurrence of headaches and nausea just before his flight to Pittsburgh prompted Buffalo management to declare him out for the season. His concussion was the result of a hit by Lightning D Jassen Cullimore, his head hitting off the glass, then off the ice after he fell.

A crowd of 12,724, second-smallest of the season, watched the Penguins' first meaningless home game since April 4, 1987, a 4-3 overtime victory against the Red Wings which ended that regular season. The Penguins also missed the playoffs in 1988 and 1990, but they weren't eliminated from contention until the final game each time.

Fewer than 1,000 tickets remain for the home finale tomorrow, after which all of the players will give their game sweaters to fans.

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