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Penguins Koltsov's hat trick helps Penguins forge 5-5 tie; Lemieux gets 2 assists

Saturday, September 27, 2003

By Dave Molinari, Post-Gazette Sports Writer

Mario Lemieux logged 20 minutes, two seconds of ice time in the Penguins' 5-5 exhibition tie against Columbus at Mellon Arena last night.

Konstantin Koltsov: The finishing touch. (Peter Diana, Post-Gazette photos)

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He earned two assists. He was credited with two shots on goal, got in a little quality power-play work and did a bit of penalty-killing.

And, perhaps most important, might have found linemates whose talents mesh nicely with his own.

Penguins coach Eddie Olczyk had planned to start the game with Lemieux on a line alongside Martin Straka and Konstantin Kolstov, then move other forwards onto the line, looking for effective combinations.

Turns out there wasn't much need to experiment. Not after Koltsov, whose inability to convert scoring chances has been the only serious flaw in his game, rang up three goals in the first two periods.

"I'd be lying to tell you I didn't think about making some moves," Olczyk said. "But what we're trying to do is build confidence in players, and a guy like [Koltsov], he's been told in the past he can't score goals.

"If you start believing that you can, and you're put in a position that you can and work in practice like he has, doing a little bit extra, sometimes it pays off."

Koltsov deflected praise for his performance -- "It's a team game," he said. "Today, I scored three goals. Tomorrow, another guy" -- and said it was "unbelievable" to share a line with Lemieux and Straka.

"To play with Mario is great for me," he said. "I study, look at how he plays."

He won't see Lemieux in uniform again for a couple of weeks, because Lemieux is not scheduled to dress for the Penguins' final two preseason games. They will face Washington tonight at 7 in Portland, Maine, then close out preseason play at 5 p.m. tomorrow at Columbus.

His two points aside, Lemieux's biggest moment might have come with a second or so left in overtime, when he was set up in the slot and lashed a shot that could have produced the winning goal if goalie Fred Brathwaite hadn't reacted quickly enough.

"I think he got a little piece of it," Lemieux said.

Blue Jackets coach Doug MacLean, who doubles as the team's general manager, used that sequence in an unvarnished -- and unsuccessful -- effort to enhance ticket sales for the rematch tomorrow.

"I expect he'll want to come back and play in Columbus Sunday night, so he can redeem himself after missing that last chance," MacLean said.

Olczyk said Lemieux's ice time was "probably right around where I was hoping it to be," and Lemieux seemed to appreciate the opportunity to get some work with his potential linemates.

"It was good to have a chance to play with Marty and Koltsov," he said. "Get a good feel for how they play."

Lemieux gave Dan Fritsche, an 18-year-old rookie with the Blue Jackets, a rather humbling welcome to the NHL a few minutes into the game. He lined up opposite Fritsche for a faceoff in the neutral zone, and pushed the puck between Fritsche's legs before skating around him to collect it and lead a rush into the Columbus end.

"I didn't even bother looking at his hands, or the way his body was turned," Fritsche said. "He surprised me, no doubt about that."

Blue Jackets left winger Rick Nash gave Lemieux a welcome of his own at 5:46 of the first, when he high-sticked Lemieux while trying to impede him from behind.

The Penguins took some of the sting out of that by scoring while Nash was in the penalty box, as Koltsov punched in an Aleksey Morozov feed from the right side of the crease at 6:45. Lemieux did not get a point on that goal, although his feed to Straka, who passed the puck along to Morozov, ignited the scoring sequence.

Mario Lemieux operates behind the net against Columbus' Luke Richardson in his first preseason action last night at Mellon Arena.

That lead was vaporized when Andrej Nedorost of Columbus scored twice in a 19-second span late in the period -- the first stemming from a ghastly Dick Tarnstrom giveaway, the second off a nice feed from Kent McDonell -- but Koltsov pulled the Penguins even with a dazzling shot at 3:57 of the second, blowing a wrist shot past Brathwaite high on the glove side from above the left dot.

Columbus' Lasse Pirjeta (7:02) and Rico Fata (7:22) of the Penguins traded goals as the middle of the period approached, and Matt Murley gave the Penguins their second lead when he backhanded a loose puck out of the crease and into the net at 18:43.

Seventeen seconds later, Koltsov completed his hat trick by chasing down a long lead pass from Lemieux in the Columbus zone, then whipping a shot over Brathwaite's right shoulder from the inner edge of the right circle to make it 5-3.

"Obviously he can't score every time he gets a chance," Lemieux said. "But you see the goals he scored, he's got pretty good hands."

And while Columbus salvaged the tie on power-play goals by Derrick Walser (10:56) and Jaroslav Spacek (14:23) during the third period, that didn't detract from Koltsov's performance. Or Lemieux's satisfaction with how this dress rehearsal primed him for the regular season.

"I'm feeling good," he said. "I'm ready to go, and excited about the chance to play and see what we can do this year."

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

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