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Penguins Penguins Report: 1/21/03

Tuesday, January 21, 2003

By Dejan Kovacevic, Post-Gazette Sports Writer

SCOUTING REPORT

Matchup: Penguins vs. Sabres, 7:08 p.m. today, HSBC Arena, Buffalo, N.Y.

TV, radio: Fox Sports Net; WWSW-FM (94.5), WBGG-AM (970).

Probable goaltenders: Sebastien Caron for the Penguins, Martin Biron for the Sabres.

Penguins: Are 3-0 vs. Sabres this season, outscoring them, 14-5. ... LW Martin Straka has a point in 11 of past 15 games, with eight goals and seven assists in that span. ... Averaging 25.3 shots per game, second fewest in NHL.

Sabres: Are 6-1-1 in January, including just-completed 3-0-1 road trip. ... LW Miroslav Satan has five goals, eight assists in past 11 games. ... Penalty-killing has allowed only two goals in past 42 chances, moving to No. 9 in league rankings.

Hidden stat: Buffalo's past 11 goals have come from 10 different players, including six players who had produced only four goals over their previous 264 individual games.

NOTEBOOK

The Penguins' flight from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., to Buffalo, N.Y., yesterday was forced to divert to Erie briefly because Buffalo's airport was closed because of snow. The plane stayed in Erie about an hour, then continued to Buffalo. The Penguins began practicing at HSBC Arena at 3 p.m., two hours later than scheduled. Coach Rick Kehoe put the Penguins, who had Sunday off in Florida, through a high-tempo, 75-minute workout capped by a series of rink-length sprints. All players on the trip participated except RW Alexei Kovalev, who is questionable for tonight because of a knee injury from the 3-0 loss Saturday to the Panthers. The precise nature of the injury is unknown. C Mario Lemieux, who has missed the past three games because of a groin injury, skated briefly at the start of the session but ruled himself out for tonight.

The Sabres will be without LW Jochen Hecht (concussion), LW Vaclav Varada (knee), RW Maxim Afinogenov (concussion) and D Rhett Warrener (foot). Hecht and Afinogenov practiced with the team yesterday but are not expected to be cleared to play until later in the week.

Even though he is the Penguins' owner, Lemieux invariably defers to GM Craig Patrick when asked to discuss player personnel matters in public. He did so again yesterday when asked if the team is trying to trade Kovalev, as was reported in the Sunday Post-Gazette. "You tell me," he replied. Kovalev was asked questions on the matter by reporters again yesterday, and he reiterated his stance that he does not want to leave Pittsburgh. "I just hope it's not true," he said.

If or when the Penguins will be able to deal Kovalev this season is uncertain, given the poor economic conditions around the NHL. No more than a handful of teams could afford to secure him to a long-term contract and, thus, no more than that will be willing to deliver the Penguins a significant return in a trade. Of the five believed to have discussed Kovalev with the Penguins -- Stars, Islanders, Rangers, Flyers and Maple Leafs -- the strongest tangible interest has been shown by the Stars and Islanders. Dallas had two scouts at the Penguins' game Saturday, including Guy Carbonneau, an assistant to GM Doug Armstrong. And, although Islanders GM Mike Milbury has been cautious about leaking trade speculation this season, one prominent team official acknowledged this past weekend that there is interest in Kovalev. The Stars and Islanders have two elements in their favor: Both have enough payroll flexibility to accommodate Kovalev, and both have the kind of top-shelf defensemen the Penguins figure to be seeking. Another factor on New York's side is that the Islanders are aware that C Alexei Yashin and Kovalev are best friends. Two summers ago, Milbury signed Yashin to a 10-year, $90 million contract, and keeping Yashin happy is one way to protect that mammoth investment. Yashin yesterday declined comment when asked about the chance of Kovalev joining him on Long Island. Also, the Denver Post reported that the Avalanche has had a scout at each of the Penguins' past two games and that it could mean Colorado is interested in Kovalev. In Toronto, Maple Leafs officials yesterday denied interest in Kovalev.

G Sebastien Caron will make his fifth consecutive start for the Penguins tonight, something he could not have imagined when the team made him an emergency recall Jan. 7. "Yeah, it's not what I was thinking about at the time," he said. "But I'm just trying to take everything as it goes, not get too high or too low. Everything that's happened so far, it's because I've been on an even keel, and I have to stay that way." Kehoe said he is not worried about overusing Caron: "No, not at all. He's done the job for us."

Kehoe did not rule out that C Randy Robitaille and/or D Andrew Ference could return to the lineup tonight. Robitaille has been a healthy scratch the past four games, Ference the past five. "There's a chance," Kehoe said. "We could mix it up a little."

In the first four legs of this five-game road trip, the Penguins played a disciplined style which might appear to be a departure from the norm in terms of strategy. C Jan Hrdina assured it is not: "Playing defense is all commitment. It's not about Xs and Os, and it's not like some guys can do it and some guys can't. If everybody's doing it, then it works. We've played lots of close games on this trip, and we won three of them because we're playing the same way. That's what we need. We need to win." D Michal Rozsival added that performing well in so many close games could benefit the team for the stretch drive: "It's good because we need to know that we can play that type of game. These have all been tight, and we can learn from that."

MINOR-LEAGUE REPORT
SUNDAY'S RESULTS

WILKES-BARRE/SCRANTON (19-19-2-3) did not play.

WHEELING (17-25-3) did not play.

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