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Penguins Penguins lose eighth in row, 5-1

Sunday, March 09, 2003

By Dave Molinari, Post-Gazette Sports Writer

The Penguins knew going in that they don't have the personnel to compete evenly with Ottawa.

That the Senators' edge in skill and depth is at least as great as the 33-point gap that separates them from the Penguins in the Eastern Conference standings.

Ottawa's Daniel Alfredsson flips the Senators' fifth goal of the night past Johan Hedberg at Mellon Arena. (Matt Freed, Post-Gazette photos)

Still, the Penguins believed that if they played a near-flawless game they might be able to steal a point or two from the Senators.

And perhaps they were correct.

But no one ever will know because, while the Penguins' effort in a 5-1 loss to Ottawa at Mellon Arena was commendable, their execution was not.

Left winger Martin Straka insisted that "I don't think we played as bad as the scoreboard" indicated, and he has a point. Still, the Penguins were guilty of too many giveaways, too many blown assignments, too many mental lapses to survive against such an elite opponent.

"We needed to play a perfect game," goalie Johan Hedberg said. "If you don't do that, you're going to get burned. And we did."

And so the Penguins (25-35-4-5) had their losing streak swell to eight games, three shy of the franchise record set Jan. 22-Feb. 10, 1983.

If the Penguins lose a rematch with Ottawa tonight at the Corel Centre, they will match the second-longest losing streak in team history.

 
 
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The Penguins' magic number for elimination from playoff contention is 15, which means they should be formally removed from the race within a couple of weeks.

Ottawa clinched a playoff berth for the seventh year in a row and maintained its three-point cushion over second-place New Jersey in the fight for the top seed in the East. In the process, the Senators convinced the Penguins they are worthy of being touted as Stanley Cup contenders.

"They're a great team," center Mario Lemieux said. "They play as a unit on the ice, very under control and with good positioning. It's tough to play against a good team like that when you're struggling."

The Senators are strong in every facet of play, but their most impressive trait is their opportunistic streak. That was evidenced by the way they dominated the game despite being outshot, 35-31.

"Every time we had a breakdown, it ended up in our net," Straka said.

Ottawa routinely turned giveaways into odd-man breaks and scored on a high percentage of them.

"When you play the best teams in the league -- like Dallas, Colorado, Ottawa -- they wait for turnovers, then they kill you," Lemieux said.

Although the Penguins had a strong first period, Karel Rachunek put the Senators in front to stay with a power-play goal at 14:20, hammering a slap shot past Hedberg from above the right circle.

Penguins defenseman Hans Jonsson set a perfect screen in front of Hedberg to make Ottawa's second goal, on a Magnus Arvedson shot from near the right dot at 6:52 of the second, possible, but Lemieux countered for the Penguins with a man-advantage goal at 12:53.

It was the 28th of the season for Lemieux, who has scored five of the Penguins' past six goals.

That goal invigorated the Penguins -- and the crowd of 14,354 -- but Todd White made it 3-1 at 16:57, when he tucked his own rebound inside the left post after his shot squirted between Hedberg's legs.

If that goal didn't snuff the Penguins' comeback chances -- and it almost certainly did -- the one Arvedson got at 8:03 of the third did. He took a behind-the-back pass from Daniel Alfredsson near the blue line and carried the puck into the left circle before wristing a low shot by Hedberg to put Ottawa up, 4-1.

The Penguins were awarded a five-on-three power play for 1:47 in the middle of the period but wasted most of it passing the puck harmlessly around the perimeter and generating just one shot on Lalime.

Ottawa's Wade Redden tangles with Shawn Heins in the second period.

"We couldn't get anything going," Straka said. "It was sad, but that's the way it is right now."

Alfredsson closed out the scoring at 14:42, leaving the Penguins with nothing but a surprising level of support from the crowd.

"The fans were great," Lemieux said. "It's nice to see that they're being patient. From what I saw, our fans, our real fans, were here and supported us."

The Penguins, of course, won't have the crowd on their side tonight in Ottawa. Fact is, there will be almost nothing working in their favor, aside from firsthand knowledge of what it will take to stay in the game with the Senators.

"Every time we get a chance, we have to score," Straka said. "And every time they get a chance, we have to stop it."

Nice idea, though probably not practical. Which is part of the reason this season is beginning to feel a lot like some Lemieux endured early in his career.

"It's about the same," he said. "When we get beat, we get beat by a few goals. That's always tough to accept.

"But we're in a phase where we're going to change the franchise. We're going to hang in there for the rest of the season, then we'll take care of it."


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

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