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Smizik: Makeover works for Penguins

Saturday, April 28, 2001

BUFFALO, N. Y. -- Many, many, many years ago, when my journalistic calling was to cover hockey on a daily basis as the Penguins beat reporter, Red Kelly was the team's coach.

Kelly barely is remembered in Pittsburgh these days, which isn't as it should be. He was a Hall of Famer, a former member of the Canadian Parliament, a gentleman of infinite class and, as we learned every time the Penguins went to Toronto, a legend in his own time.

Recognizing a novice when he saw one, he often guided my path through a world about which I knew little.

Once when the team was on the West Coast, he introduced me to Vic Stasiuk, a hockey old-timer who was coaching the now-defunct California Golden Seals. I asked Stasiuk about the California goaltender, pointed out his sparkling goals-against average and asked if this player had been the key to the team's recent success.

Stasiuk quickly admonished me with words that have stayed with me all these years: "Goals-against is a team statistic, not a goalie statistic."

So with all due respect to Johan (Stand On His) Hedberg, there is much more to this astonishing redefinition of the Penguins than the goalie.

Hedberg, who will be in goal this afternoon at HSBC Arena against Buffalo, has been special and a major reason the Penguins already have won one playoff series and lead the Sabres, 1-0, in a second. But his teammates have been almost as special, and he is perfectly willing to share his 1.38 goals-against average and the .949 save percentage with them.

"If the defense isn't there for you, you're not going to play very good," Hedberg said after practice yesterday. "Our guys have been unbelievable."

As unlikely as Hedberg's rise from career minor-leaguer to playoff media darling is, it is no more so than the transformation of the Penguins from a team that gave nothing more than lip service to defense to one that makes defense its first -- and often its only -- priority.

When the playoffs opened, none of the 16 participating teams had allowed more regular-season goals than the Penguins. But here they are after seven games having allowed only 10 goals. It's stupefying.

And the Sabres are quite ready to admit as much. Buffalo Coach Lindy Ruff, who saw the new-look Penguins in person for the first time Thursday when his team was shutout, 3-0, came away mightily impressed.

"You see guys backchecking now. You see Mario [Lemieux] with his head buried getting back into the play. That's out of character, but that shows you the commitment they have to winning right now."

Miroslav Satan, recognized as Buffalo's most gifted offensive player, was equally impressed, as well he should be. Although he logged 20 minutes of ice time, he did not register a shot on goal in Game One.

"I'm surprised," Satan said. "I think everybody is. You see all these offensive players coming back now. It makes them a much tougher team to play against. They're the new Pittsburgh Penguins, and we have to adjust to the team we see out there."

The Penguins' preoccupation with defense is such that after their first-game shutout they openly spoke of disappointment with their defensive play. And this from a team that once considered a 6-5 victory a good day's work.

"We didn't play very well in the second period," Lemieux said. "We weren't very sharp. We were backing up a little too much. For us to play well, we have to be aggressive at their blue line and the red line and make sure they don't get two zones to work with.

"We've got to go back, look at the film again and readjust."

No player, as Ruff suggested, has been more instrumental in changing the Penguins' mind-set than Lemieux. If he's working hard on defense, how can any other player not to the same?

"Look at a guy like Mario and the talent he has with the puck and seeing how hard he's playing and taking the man and battling down low, it makes a difference," said defenseman Bob Boughner.

Boughner acknowledged how defense has become the team's mission.

"That's all we talk about in the room," he said. "We really don't talk about how we attack. It's basically taking care of our own end and the other end will take care of itself."

It pleases Lemieux no end.

"The defense we have now, with everyone committed to it, it's to our advantage. We feel that one or two goals should be enough for us to win the game.

"We're starting to feel a lot more comfortable playing this way. In our meetings, it's defense first and offense second. That's what's going to win you championships."

The Penguins are 11 wins away from the only championship they want. Keep playing like this, and it's not an unreasonable goal.

Bob Smizik can be reached at bsmizik@post-gazette.com.

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