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Madden: It's not time to hit the panic button

Saturday, April 14, 2001

All is well.

I know, I know, the Washington Capitals were supposed to lie down for the Penguins just like they always have the past decade. It was supposed to be easy. The Capitals were supposed to be the Penguins' version of the Washington Generals, the Harlem Globetrotters' hired patsies in basketball. The Capitals, however, double-crossed the Penguins by winning, 1-0, Thursday in Game 1 at Washington.

Nonetheless, all is well.

It was merely one game. Anyone who expected a sweep doesn't understand the considerable talent of the Capitals or the shortcomings of the Penguins. The Penguins still will win the series, and they'll start down that road by winning Game 2 this afternoon.

If the Penguins don't get a victory today, it's time to worry a bit. But right now, all is well.

The Penguins do have to do some things differently.

For starters, Coach Ivan Hlinka has to keep Mario Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr on the same line.

Hlinka split them up early in the game Thursday so Washington Coach Ron Wilson could only attempt to neutralize one of the Penguins' big guns with the tight-checking line of Jeff Halpern, Steve Konowalchuk and Ulf Dahlen. Wilson chose to sic the Halpern line mostly on Lemieux, then likely went into his office and laughed at Hlinka.

As good as Lemieux and Jagr are individually, they're better together. That showed when splitting them up Thursday resulted in zero shots by Lemieux and minimal offensive pressure by Jagr. Lemieux and Jagr have played together constantly since Lemieux's comeback in late December. They've faced every manner of defensive scheme and they've still dominated. Hlinka separated them far too soon.

Hlinka also has to use his fourth line more than a shift per game.

The goal is to win the Stanley Cup, right? Well, that means a two-month high intensity war on ice that's going to require a lot of soldiers, including more than nine forwards. The Penguins' top three lines had no jump during most of the third period Thursday. Imagine what their energy level will be like in, say, Game 7 of the second round if Hlinka goes strictly with three lines between now and then.

The Penguins need to play their game.

The Penguins got only 16 shots Thursday, and that was because they didn't play their game. They dumped the puck more Thursday than they did some months during the regular season. The Penguins needed to establish their style and tempo, and they didn't. They let the Capitals dictate the flow. The last thing the Penguins want to be is conservative. They need to strike fear in the hearts of the opposition. They need to skate, pass, shoot and create. They need to force the issue.

The Penguins need to stay out of the penalty box. Washington got five power-play chances Thursday, using one to net the game's only goal. The Capitals' power play ranked fourth in the NHL during the regular season. The Penguins must minimize Washington's power-play opportunities.

But again, all is well. These are easily corrected flaws.

The Penguins took a few good things away from Game 1. Rookie goalie Johan Hedberg was impressive in his NHL playoff debut, making 26 saves while doing a minimum of scrambling. If that turns out to be indicative of Hedberg's typical postseason performance, the Penguins will be fine in goal.

The Penguins didn't get frustrated by the bad officiating. And boy, was it bad.

Jan Hrdina's first-period dribbler near the Washington goal line should have counted. Bucket-headed referee Don Koharski initially ruled it a goal, then went to a replay that appeared inconclusive. One would think the original call would stand, but the goal was waved off.

Washington's Trevor Linden did everything but hog-tie Lemieux on one trip down the ice, but no penalty was given. Linden did get the consolation prize, however, a brutal Lemieux slash across his hands. The Capitals did all the grabbing and interfering one would expect, but the Penguins got only one power play. Yet they didn't complain afterward. Lemieux, in fact, went out of his way to not complain.

Good. Poor officiating -- officiating that favors less talented players and teams -- is a year-round reality in the NHL. Getting frustrated makes no sense. The Penguins need to adapt and cope.

All is well.

The Penguins have Jagr, Alexei Kovalev and Martin Straka, three of the top six scorers in the NHL. They also have Lemieux, who would have finished first or second in the points race had he played all season, and Robert Lang, who had a career year. The Penguins will score. They won't be shut out again this series.

The Penguins just have to avoid frustration. Frustration is their biggest potential enemy. If the Penguins stay calm, play their game and make a few minor adjustments, they will win this series. One game doesn't matter. You have to win four games. It doesn't matter which four. Any four.

When the time for panic draws nigh, I'll be glad to lead the charge. But right now, all is well.


Mark Madden's talk show is heard 4-8 p.m. weekdays on WEAE-AM (1250).

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