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Penguins Lemieux's groin injury lingers;
Kovalev slowed by knee injury

Tuesday, January 21, 2003

By Dave Molinari, Post-Gazette Sports Writer

BUFFALO, N.Y. -- Mario Lemieux tested his sore groin by skating for about 10 minutes at HSBC Arena yesterday afternoon. And it failed miserably.

Mario Lemieux has made only a token appearance - six shifts in a game at Boston - since his groin was injured Jan. 7. (Peter Diana, Post-Gazette)

Badly enough that Lemieux doesn't plan to get back on skates for several days.

Alexei Kovalev, meanwhile, never strayed within 50 feet of the ice yesterday because of his injured left knee, but hasn't ruled out playing when the Penguins face Buffalo at 7:08 p.m. today in the finale of their five-game road trip.

This will be the sixth game in the past seven that Lemieux has missed because of his bad groin, while Kovalev, if he's unable to play, would be scratched for just the second time this season.

And while the Penguins have fared reasonably well without Lemieux this season, going 4-2 in the six games he has skipped, trying to get by without him and Kovalev -- the Nos. 1 and 3 scorers in the NHL before games last night -- might be a bit much to ask.

"That's certainly two guys, especially on the power play, who can help the team," Lemieux said, eloquently stating the obvious.

He and Kovalev would be particularly valuable against a resurgent opponent that, after closing out 2002 with an 8-22-5-2 record, has gone 6-1-1 in January and shut out two of its past three opponents.

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Mind you, the Penguins have been pretty stingy lately, too, allowing just six goals in games at Boston, Carolina, Tampa Bay and Florida. If Kovalev joins Lemieux in the press box tonight, whatever chance they have of taking home a point or two figures to hinge on their defensive effort.

"You have to tighten up a little more defensively [when players like Lemieux and Kovalev are out]," left winger Dan LaCouture said. "You always have to think defense-first, but [tonight], definitely."

First goals have been decisive lately -- the team scoring it has won each of the Penguins' past eight games -- and could be even more critical than usual this evening if, as expected, it develops into a low-scoring game.

Coach Rick Kehoe acknowledged that, if the Penguins are without Lemieux and Kovalev, "we're going to have to make a couple of adjustments" to stimulate the offense, but declined to say whether he will concentrate his most skilled forwards on one line.

The Penguins' No. 1 line has been built around Lemieux for most of this season, but he has played less than four minutes since straining his groin two weeks ago on Long Island.

He had not skated for a week before yesterday, and said he went onto the ice then only to see how his injury is progressing.

"Just a little skate," he said. "But I was still feeling it, so I decided to come off. ... I'm not ready [to play] yet. I'm going to stay away (from the ice) a few more days."

Lemieux made a premature attempt to return from his injury Jan. 13 in Boston, and hurt a different part of his groin in the process. A problem that initially had been expected to idle him for a few days now will prevent him from playing for the better part of a month, if not longer.

"This is the first time in my career I've had this kind of injury," Lemieux said. "From what I've heard, you have to be patient with it and test it once in a while, see if it gets better. ... It's improved, but not to the point where I can go out and skate full speed."

How Kovalev will be able to skate on his injured left knee remains to be seen; he plans to try it at the game-day skate this morning before deciding whether to dress for the Sabres game.

Kovalev said there is "a little bit of swelling" in his knee, which was injured when Florida defenseman Igor Ulanov fell on it, but that it hurts mostly when he twists it, or when he gets up after sitting for while.

"Otherwise, it's not too bad," he said.

Kovalev confirmed that the precise nature of his injury isn't clear -- "We don't know," he said. "You can't just look at it and tell right away" -- but volunteered that, "by the [restrictions in] motion and flexibility, it looks like maybe just a strained muscle or something."

That diagnosis notwithstanding, Kovalev is expected to undergo a Magnetic Resonance Imaging examination of his knee, as well as an examination by Dr. Charles Burke, the Penguins' team physician, when the team returns home from Buffalo.

There's no question that the trip which ends this evening has been productive; all that has to be settled is just how good it was.

Lose tonight, and it goes down as a pretty fair swing through the Eastern United States. Beat the Sabres, and it's a resounding, almost unprecedented, success. A 3-2 trip would be good; going 4-1 would earn it a spot among the best in franchise history.

"When we left Pittsburgh, our mind-set was that it was going to be the biggest week in this season, so far," left winger Nieminen said. "And it's one game away from being capitalized [on]."

Of course, that remaining game might be the greatest challenge the Penguins have faced since leaving home, even if Kovalev is in the lineup.

For while Buffalo has just 34 points, second-lowest total in the NHL, the Sabres have been one of the league's hottest teams lately.

Not a threat to crack the Eastern Conference playoff field -- that would mean hurdling a half-dozen clubs and erasing a double-digit points deficit -- but capable of doing some serious spoiling for teams fighting for the final few spots. Teams like the Penguins.

"They have some pretty good players over there, and they have some experience," Kehoe said. "I'm not surprised that they went on the road and played well."

He just might end up saying something like that about his own club before this evening is over.

It's just that, at least for now, Kehoe doesn't know for sure which of his good players will be in the lineup. Or exactly how well his team's trip will turn out.

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

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