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Penguins Penguins pocket seven points from tough, five-game road swing

Wednesday, January 22, 2003

By Dave Molinari, Post-Gazette Sports Writer

BUFFALO -- Penguins Coach Rick Kehoe wanted his team to keep it simple last night, and understandably so.

Rookie Sebastien Caron earns his second shutout of the road trip last night, making 34 saves including this one on Buffalo's Chris Gratton. (David Duprey, Associated Press)

After all, the Penguins were at the end of a five-game road trip. The situation called for -- no, demanded -- classic, boring road hockey.

Trouble is, Buffalo had just returned from a four-game, cross-country jaunt, and Sabres Coach Lindy Ruff was well aware of how teams traditionally struggle in the first game back at home. A basic game, with virtually no risk-taking, seemed the ideal antidote.

Get two teams playing that way, and you end up with lots of simplicity, very little hockey. And even less excitement.

You get a game that has the entertainment value of watching gelatin congeal. You get the Penguins' 0-0 tie with the Sabres before hundreds of emotionally detached third parties at the HSBC Arena.

It was the Penguins' first 0-0 game since Jan. 7, 1999, against Boston at Mellon Arena. And if it wasn't, for nearly all of its 65 minutes, the most boring game since the invention of artificial ice, it was sure to at least medal.

 
 
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"I came off the ice and [equipment manager Steve Latin] said the best part was sharpening my skate in between shifts," Penguins left winger Steve McKenna said. "We came in and wanted to play solid. We tried not to play fancy, but we didn't think we'd play that un-fancy, if you can say that."

When someone mentioned that the Sabres hadn't exactly put forth their "A" game, either, McKenna responded, "I don't know what letter of the alphabet that game was."

Boring or otherwise, the tie allowed the Penguins (20-19-4-5) to complete their trip with a 3-1-1 record and seven of a possible 10 points. Considering that they got one -- count it, one -- point from a similar swing last month, they were delighted with seven.

"Perfect," right winger Alexei Kovalev said. "It couldn't be better than that. We had a lot more fun on this road trip."

The Penguins did it despite playing without center Mario Lemieux for the sixth time in their past seven games, although they did have Kovalev, whose left knee was injured in a 3-0 loss Saturday at Florida.

Kovalev tested his knee during the game-day skate and, after pronouncing himself to be operating at "98 percent" of capacity, logged 24 minutes, 26 seconds of ice time and launched four of the 23 shots the Penguins threw at Sabres goalie Martin Biron.

And, more important, he proclaimed afterward that the knee gave him no trouble. Or significant cause for concern.

"There's just a little pain," Kovalev said. "As long as it stays the same [today], it looks like it's fine."

Dr. Charles Burke, the Penguins' team physician, is expected to examine Kovalev in the next day or so, but Kovalev said he does not believe a Magnetic Resonance Imaging examination will be necessary.

"Because of the way I feel, there's really nothing [major wrong]," he said.

While Kovalev's knee might be OK, the prognosis for the Penguins' offense isn't so encouraging. It hasn't produced a goal in seven-plus periods, since the second period of their 3-2 victory Friday at Tampa.

Of course, with the way rookie goalie Sebastien Caron has played, the Penguins don't need many to have a shot at earning two points. He turned aside 34 Sabres shots to record his second shutout in his past four games. That matches the combined output of his colleagues, Johan Hedberg and Jean-Sebastien Aubin, for the season.

And while Caron deflected much of the praise for his performance -- "The [defense] played good in front of me," he said -- he clearly has convinced his teammates that he is capable of being a major contributor.

"He had a great road trip," McKenna said. "You have to look at the guy a little different now."

Caron was forced to make a handful of quality stops last night, including one on Miroslav Satan as overtime expired. His best saves might have been on Jean-Pierre Dumont, whom he thwarted on a rebound from the left side of the crease about six minutes into the second period, and Taylor Pyatt, denied from the same area with 8 1/2 minutes left in regulation.

Since launching his NHL career with a relief appearance in a 3-1 loss Jan. 11 to the New York Rangers, Caron has stopped all but six of the 173 shots he has faced.

"He knows we were struggling and needed to win some games," Kovalev said. "He's really stood on his head, and the guys have seen how big the saves are he's making. He's been unbelievable for us."

Kovalev
24 minutes, 26 seconds of ice time in Buffalo
(David Duprey, Associated Press)

Whether Caron still will be performing at this level when Hedberg returns from a broken collarbone -- that won't happen for several weeks, at least -- is hard to predict. For now, though, he is a legitimate contender for the No. 1 goaltending job.

"He's proven himself in the league now," Kehoe said. "We've played some very good teams, and he's been right there. Let's face it, if you don't get the stops, it's hard to get points."

Getting a few goals makes it easier, too, but the Penguins' offense has lost its edge in the past few days. Caron, though, shrugged off his teammates' inability to generate some.

"We didn't score, but that doesn't matter," he said. "What matters is that we didn't give them any goals, so we had a chance to win the game."

More often that not, they took advantage of those opportunities during the trip.

Kehoe praised his players' effort -- "Guys played hard the whole trip, even the game in Florida," he said -- and their perspiration translated directly to points. Probably more than they anticipated getting when they flew to Boston 10 days ago.

"When you're on the road, you don't expect anything," Caron said. "So seven points is a bonus for us. We had a good road trip."


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

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