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Penguins Penguins' Vujtek gets unexpected shot on No. 2 line

Cracked ankle knocks Robitaille out of lineup

Tuesday, October 22, 2002

By Dave Molinari, Post-Gazette Sports Writer

MONTREAL -- Vladimir Vujtek has played 106 games in the National Hockey League. No more than, oh, roughly 104 have been utterly forgettable.

Vladmir Vujtek hasn't been in the lineup since the season opener Oct. 10. (Robin Rombach, Post-Gazette)

Give or take a couple, of course.

But the Penguins' 6-0 season-opening loss to Toronto Oct. 10 is one Vujtek likely cares less to remember than most.

Not only because, in his Penguins debut, the team lost by six goals. Or because he failed to record a point. Or because he finished the game with a plus-minus rating of minus-3.

No, what really had to trouble him was the possibility that his first game with the Penguins might also prove to be his last. Vujtek immediately lost his spot in the lineup, and nothing that happened over the subsequent 10 days or so suggested he was poised to reclaim it.

At least not until yesterday morning, when the Penguins learned that second-line center Randy Robitaille will be unable to play for at least a week -- and quite possibly longer -- because of a cracked ankle he got, coincidentally enough, in that game against the Maple Leafs.

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Robitaille's injury not only opened a place in the lineup for Vujtek when the Penguins visit Montreal at 7:38 p.m. today, but on the No. 2 line with Jan Hrdina and Alexandre Daigle. And, if practice yesterday is any indication, on the second power-play unit, too.

Coach Rick Kehoe confirmed that Vujtek, who has been the Penguins' only healthy spare forward, "will start off on that line," and Vujtek was predictably happy about not having to spend a fifth consecutive game in street clothes.

"Of course," he said. "Anybody would be happy [to rejoin] the lineup."

Not, mind you, that Vujtek had any particular problem with the way he lost his place. At age 30, he has been in the game long enough -- whether in North America or Finland or the Czech Republic -- to appreciate that personnel moves were in order after the opener.

And that, after the Penguins followed that defeat with a 3-0-1 surge, Kehoe had no reason to tamper with a successful lineup.

"Everybody wants to play," Vujtek said. "But we lost the first game, and the coach made some changes and they worked out. The team was playing well, and we started winning. There was nothing I could do. Just work hard, stay in shape and wait for my chance."

While Robitaille's injury has given Vujtek a second chance to secure a permanent spot in the lineup, it is a significant setback for the Penguins, even though preliminary indications are that he won't be out for an extended period.

"Hopefully, it's only a week, but we don't know right now, for sure," Kehoe said. "If it's just a week, we'll be happy with that."

Offense hasn't been a problem for the Penguins -- they've averaged 4.25 goals over the past four games -- so Robitaille's absence won't necessarily be lethal. Still, he is their No. 5 scorer, with two goals and two assists in five games, and has been giving them a solid 15-plus minutes per game.

"He's been playing good for us, especially on special teams," center Mario Lemieux said. "He sees the ice very well. He's a good player. We're going to miss him on the power play."

Robitaille is the top point-producer on the No. 2 line -- Jan Hrdina has three points, Daigle one -- and has been the most visible presence on that unit. Vujtek's reputation as one of the top talents in Europe suggests he has the skill to fit in well with Hrdina and Daigle, but that doesn't guarantee the line will mesh.

"We'll see," Hrdina said. "It's hard to predict. But he's a good player. He's been very successful in Europe and he's got good hands, so I think we should be fine."

For his part, Vujtek insists that he has no preference for linemates.

"I'm happy to play with anybody," he said. "I'll just be glad to be out there. Hopefully, we can produce something in the game."

While Robitaille's reaction to his injury provides some insight on his approach to his job -- he said he continued playing for a week after hurting his ankle because "I just figured it was a bruise, and you have to play with a little bit of pain" -- how Vujtek responds to this chance might indicate what kind of a future, if any, he has in the NHL.

Play well, and he could go a long way toward locking up steady work with the Penguins. Play poorly, and he might become little more than a footnote on the depth chart.

"This is his opportunity," Kehoe said. "Now, it's up to him."

Kehoe said that his expectations for Vujtek are pretty basic -- "Show us, defensively, [that he can] take care of our end, and what he can do offensively" -- and Vujtek seems to recognize what is at stake for him while he's filling in for Robitaille.

"It's up to me," he said. "I have to show him I can play at this level. Hopefully, it's going to work out."

Dave Molinari can be reached at 412-263-1144.

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