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Penguins It's nothing personal, says Kasparaitis; he just likes to hit

Saturday, October 12, 2002

By Dave Molinari, Post-Gazette Sports Writer

Darius Kasparaitis knew a lot of things were going to be different in the NHL this season.

He just didn't realize what a profound impact one of the changes would have on him.

No, not the crackdown on obstruction fouls. The new guidelines for goalie substitutions and high-stick goals are no big deal. And hurry-up faceoffs don't faze him, either.

In fact, it wasn't until after the New York Rangers, with whom Kasparaitis signed as a free agent in July, opened their season with a 4-1 victory at Carolina Wednesday that he realized something significant had been altered.

"I was throwing my body all over the place," Kasparaitis said yesterday. "Then I went after the game and got the stats and said, "What's going on with the hits?"

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Kasparaitis was informed that the league no longer keeps track of that stat; it, along with things such as takeaways, missed shots and blocked shots won't show up on score sheets anymore.

That was something neither Kasparaitis nor his accountant wanted to hear -- "I have a bonus for hitting," he said -- but he got over it quickly enough.

Mostly because Kasparaitis doesn't just have a bonus for hitting. He has a penchant for it.

And he doesn't need the numbers on a computer printout to prove it.

"If you're a hitter, you'll always be a hitter," Kasparaitis said. "And people know that."

And few, if any, know that better than the Penguins, for whom Kasparaitis labored for four full seasons and large chunks of two others.

Which is why his former teammates will make a point of keeping their heads up when Kasparaitis and the Rangers visit Mellon Arena tonight at 7:38. Assuming, of course, they're not interested in having those heads separated from their torsos.

And, because they watched him work for so long, they have no delusions that a minor matter like close friendships will convince Kasparaitis to pass on a chance to launch himself at one of them.

"He really doesn't treat anybody differently than anybody else," said Ian Moran, his frequent defense partner with the Penguins. "He just goes out and plays and, if you come with your head down, he'll try to make you pay."

Kasparaitis has an obvious fondness for Moran -- without prompting, he expressed surprise that Moran wasn't selected as one of the Penguins' alternate captains -- but those feelings will stay in the locker room once the game begins.

"I have no friends when I play," Kasparaitis said. "If I have a chance, I'll finish my check, but I'm not going to try to hurt anybody."

Maybe not, but that seems to happen every now and then, anyway.

Just ask Rangers center Eric Lindros, whom Kasparaitis hit with perhaps the most celebrated check in Penguins history when Lindros still was with Philadelphia. Kasparaitis hit him so hard, so perfectly, that Lindros' girlfriend probably showed concussion symptoms, too.

Or check with New York forward Matthew Barnaby. He was Kasparaitis' pal during their days with the Penguins but, after being traded to Tampa Bay, angrily accused Kasparaitis of going after his knees during a game at the Ice Palace.

And while sharing a sweater again presumably has salved Barnaby's rage -- "He still talks nonsense on the bench, but he's a great guy," Kasparaitis said -- their run-ins reinforce the point that Kasparaitis has no qualms about going after anyone.

Perhaps because the hip check is an important part of Kasparaitis' repertoire, there is a popular perception that he is dirty. Moran firmly rejects that criticism.

"I just think he plays hard," Moran said. "He hits, and I think he's got the reputation for being dirty because he doesn't care if you're a star or if you're a grinder. He does the same thing to everybody. A lot of guys give some of the big guys more respect. He doesn't do that."

Kasparaitis' willingness to hit anyone, at any time, is what made him so immensely popular when he played here. It also is why he's certain that however many people show up at Mellon Arena tonight will jeer every shift -- heck, every breath -- he takes.

"Especially because I'm a Ranger," he said. "Of course, they'll boo me. They booed [Jaromir Jagr], and he had more influence with the Penguins than I did. They'd even boo Mario [Lemieux], if he ever trades himself."

Although Kasparaitis' ties to this area are dwindling -- his house near the Penguins' practice rink at Southpointe is up for sale -- he doesn't pretend that the game tonight is nothing more than one of 82.

He hasn't had the luxury of dwelling on it because New York played its home opener against Montreal last night, but acknowledged that he spent a little time "a couple of weeks ago" pondering what it will be like to return to Mellon Arena and said, "I'll think more about it [this] morning."

Kasparaitis allowed that, "I still follow [the Penguins] a little bit," and said he watched a bit of their season-opening, 6-0 loss to Toronto Thursday.

Enough that he felt comfortable offering his views on everything from the sub-capacity crowd of 15,309 ("Maybe the people were watching something else") to seeing speedy forward Alexandre Daigle in his old No. 11 sweater ("He looked like me. I thought I was playing out there.").

Kasparaitis joined the Penguins in November, 1996 after four-plus years on Long Island, and began this season paired with his old partner from the New York Islanders, Vladimir Malakhov.

He was understandably upbeat about New York's play against the Hurricanes and, despite the pressures that go with playing in Manhattan, said he is "happy, so far." What's more, he seems optimistic that the Rangers might finally have a season in which their record is a reasonable reflection of their skill level and bloated payroll.

"I played against the Rangers all the time, and I know everybody always looked at the roster and thought, 'Wow, team looks good,' " he said.

"I think the guys who were here before have learned a big lesson: That to be successful, we all have to chip in. Forget about ice time and points and play to win."

To play the way Kasparaitis always has. No matter who he's playing against.

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