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Penguins Penguins Report: 12/23/02

Monday, December 23, 2002

By Dave Molinari, Post-Gazette Sports Writer


Matchup: Penguins vs. Buffalo Sabres, 7:08 p.m. today, Mellon Arena.

TV, radio: Fox Sports Net; WWSW-FM (94.5).

Probable goaltenders: Johan Hedberg for Penguins. Mika Noronen for Sabres.

Penguins: Will be trying to win consecutive home games for first time since Nov. 23-27. ... LW Michal Sivek is scoreless in 11 NHL games. ... Are 0-2 when D Jamie Pushor gets point.

Sabres: Are 4-11 in games decided by one or two goals. ... Have allowed seven short-handed goals, second-highest total in league, while scoring just one. ... C Tim Connolly does not have goal in 16 games.

Hidden stat: Penguins and Sabres are two of five NHL teams without overtime victory this season.


Sixteen players participated in an optional, 25-minute practice at Southpointe yesterday. Most of the Penguins' front-line forwards, including C Mario Lemieux and RW Alexei Kovalev, opted against going on the ice, but first-line LW Martin Straka decided to skate because he still is getting over the effects of a strained hamstring that forced him to sit out four games. "I need to skate a little more, just to get the flow back," he said. Straka scored the Penguins' second goal in their 2-0 victory Saturday against Calgary at Mellon Arena, giving him three in his past five games and five in his past eight.

Rookie D Brooks Orpik was impressive in his first six appearances in the NHL -- he averaged 18 minutes, 19 seconds of ice time and often teamed with Ian Moran on the No. 1 pairing -- but was a surprise scratch Saturday. Orpik was bumped from the lineup by Hans Jonsson, who had been out with a hip injury, as Coach Rick Kehoe decided to go with a more experienced lineup. "We liked the way [Orpik] was playing," Kehoe said. "It's just that we went with a veteran defenseman. We were struggling, so when the veterans were healthy, we went with [them]." Because the Penguins defeated Calgary with that lineup, Orpik shouldn't expect to play against Buffalo tonight -- "Not unless something [happens] that we have to put him in," Kehoe said -- but that doesn't necessarily mean the coaching staff is losing faith in him. "We talked to him and explained the situation," said Kehoe, who added that management has "not even discussed" the possibility of returning Orpik to Wilkes-Barre/Scranton in the American Hockey League when the NHL's holiday roster freeze ends Friday.

There's no secret about the Penguins' logic in using LW Steve McKenna on the power play -- any guy who's 6 feet 8, 252 pounds and always willing to get involved physically can cause a lot of havoc in front of the net -- and Calgary Coach Al MacNeil endorsed that approach after McKenna scored the game-winning goal Saturday. "McKenna is a big body, and he can go in front [of the net] and do some work," MacNeil said. "That's not the wrong way to run a power play. If you have a guy that size and you stick him in front, you can fire stuff in front and they're going to go in." McKenna's goal was his first of any kind in 51 games -- he hasn't assisted on one in 83 -- but his willingness to execute his blue-collar role commands respect from his teammates. LW Dan LaCouture said, "[McKenna] works hard out there every shift." RW Shean Donovan believes getting the goal was a just reward for McKenna's performance in recent games. "He's been playing really well lately," Donovan said. "It was nice to see him get a goal."

Tonight's game will be the first of two in a row at Mellon Arena that will start at 7:08 p.m., a half-hour earlier than usual. The Buffalo game was moved up 30 minutes to limit the overlap with the Steelers-Tampa Bay game, which will begin shortly after 9 p.m., while the Penguins-Montreal game Saturday will begin at 7:08 p.m. for the benefit of a Hockey Night in Canada telecast.

Sabres Coach Lindy Ruff has started G Martin Biron in 13 consecutive games but is expected to use rookie backup Mika Noronen tonight. If that turns out to be Ruff's choice, Biron, who was pulled from the Sabres' 6-2 loss Saturday in Montreal after allowing two goals on six shots, probably would have a hard time talking him out of it, considering his career record against the Penguins is 1-8-1. Although the Penguins never have faced Noronen, G Johan Hedberg can provide a scouting report because he played against him in the American Hockey League. "He's very patient," Hedberg said. "He reads the play very well and has a good head on him. He stands up quite a lot. He's not the kind of guy who flops down. He's going to be a really good goaltender." Noronen, whose most recent start was Nov. 12, has yet to prove he can be effective at this level, however: He is 0-5-1, with a 3.23 goals-against average and .875 save percentage.

Buffalo's defense corps, depleted by injuries of late, got a boost last week, when D Alexei Zhitnik returned after missing nearly a month because of a broken right foot. Zhitnik is capable of contributing at both ends of the ice, although he's more of a force in the defensive zone, and can be expected to log 24-plus minutes of ice time in a typical game. "He's a machine when it comes to that," Ruff told the Buffalo News. "The more he plays, it's usually, the better he plays. He wants to play every second shift, and he's got the wheels to do it." Although Zhitnik has just one goal in his past 106 games -- none in his past 76, since scoring against the Penguins Nov. 24, 2001 -- he mans the point on the power play and led Buffalo's defensemen with 34 points last season. D Jay McKee called him "our go-to guy on defense," and having him back is one of the few reasons Buffalo can remain hopeful about its prospects for climbing back into playoff contention. "This one is not over yet," Zhitnik said. "If you look in the standings, we can win two or three games and get back in the race."

Buffalo has been outscored, 9-2, the past two games, and while captain Stu Barnes told reporters after the Montreal game that "we're not pretending that we're not struggling and not playing well," the Sabres believe they've been on the wrong end of some suspect officiating in losses to Florida and Montreal. "It's extremely frustrating," Barnes said. "We go out and work as hard as we do, and put shots on net, and start the [Canadiens] game 3-0 because of three power plays. It's two nights in a row that we feel there's been some really questionable calls. It's hurt us both nights. ... We haven't played as well as we need to play. But the rest is out of our hands." C Adam Mair was even more outspoken. "Right now, nobody really cares if [the officials] fool with us," he said. "Maybe the officials don't feel it is important to give us a fair break out there. Maybe you get a reputation early in the year, and there's no real backlash if a call [hurts] us."


WILKES-BARRE/SCRANTON (12-14-2-2) beat Philadelphia, 5-1, at First Union Arena. RW Tom Kostopoulos scored his ninth and 10th goals, D Ross Lupaschuk his 10th, LW Alexander Zevakhin and LW Tomas Surovy his fourth each. C Shane Endicott had two assists. G Robbie Tallas stopped 33 of 34 shots.

WHEELING (11-18-2) beat Lexington, 5-4, at Wheeling Civic Center. C Zenon Konopka and RW Chris McNamara each scored his ninth goal, LW Mark Major and RW Michel Ouellet his eighth each, RW Steve Crampton his sixth. G Mike Valley stopped 42 of 46 shots.

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