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Smizik: Jagr the antidote to Penguins' ills

Tuesday, May 01, 2001

The momentum of two wins on the road, the enthusiasm of a sellout home crowd and the sight of grown men and women wearing yellow antlers wasn't enough to push the Penguins to what probably would have been an insurmountable lead in their second-round Stanley Cup playoff series.

Instead, they faced a highly motivated Buffalo Sabres team that had no intention of giving up on this series and this season and came away a 4-1 loser last night at Mellon Arena.

The Penguins lead the best-of-seven series, 2-1, but any thought that this would be easy was erased in front of an antler-wearing crowd of 17,148.

The Penguins, in a rare playoff promotion, passed out 18,000 sets of antlers last night to have a little fun with the Moosemania that is sweeping the region.

Penguins fans have placed the nickname of "Moose" on rookie goalie Johan Hedberg, who joined the Penguins from the Manitoba Moose of the IHL and whose mask featured a picture of a Moose. The fans started chanting "Moooooose" every time Hedberg made a save. As excitement grew in the region over the strong play of the Penguins in general and Hedberg in particular, Moosemania was born.

The Sabres called off the celebration last night with strong, steady play and the brilliant goaltending of Dominik Hasek.

Hedberg had outplayed Hasek, acertain Hall of Famer, in the first two games. Last night belonged to Hasek as the Penguins failed to play the tight defensive style that has marked their playoff success.

"We're giving up a lot of chances," said defenseman Andrew Ference, who had an assist on the Penguins' only goal. "We didn't play well. We haven't quite hit the stride we had in the Washington series."

It's enough to put the Penguins back into perspective. All of a sudden, they don't look so much like a team headed for the conference final and possibly the Stanley Cup final. They look like a team that finished sixth in the Eastern Conference and got on a roll at the start of the playoffs.

That roll ended emphatically last night.

"The key was getting three or four big saves [from Hasek] in the first period," said Buffalo Coach Lindy Ruff.

Ruff also had praise for Hedberg.

"It started for us in the second period. If their goalie doesn't make three or four saves, we've got them by a couple of goals."

He said he saw no decline in the play of Hedberg.

"He showed no sign of cracking. He made eight or nine good saves."

Whether the game last night was the end of the Penguins' roll or just a minor bump in the road will be determined in the days ahead.

What can make that bump considerably smoother is the return of Jaromir Jagr, the Penguins' captain and the leading scorer in the NHL, who has missed the past two games with a shoulder injury.

playing a strong game without Jagr on Saturday at Buffalo and winning, 3-1, the Penguins made it seem like they could continue to win without him.

But how can a team not miss a player of Jagr's immense ability?

It can't, and the sooner he's back in the lineup the better the Penguins' chances.

Because Jagr's injury came in the game following criticism of him by Mario Lemieux, it has been incorrectly suggested by some -- none of whom have an IQ in three digits -- that Jagr is pouting and withholding his services.

That's as preposterous and stupid as it gets. How fast people forget.

Anyone who thinks Jagr isn't capable of playing the role of a warrior should look back to Game 6 in 1999. The Penguins weren't just facing elimination by the top-seeded New Jersey Devils; they were facing the end of the franchise. The franchise was in such financial peril it wasn't certain if it would be its last game - ever.

Jagr wasn't supposed to play. A groin injury had forced him out. When he did suit up, it was only to be part of the power-play unit. But when power-play opportunities were scarce, he soon was taking a regular shift.

He tied the game with two minutes remaining in the third period and won it in overtime. The Penguins went back to New Jersey for Game 7 and won the series.

That's the kind of difference Jagr can make.

His availability likely won't be known until game time tomorrow. He had joked about the nature and seriousness of his injury in the days preceding this game, but yesterday he said, "I'll play when I'm able to help this team, not hurt this team."

Game 4 is pivotal. If the Sabres win, they're going home tied and with considerable momentum. If the Penguins win, they need just one victory in the final three games to advance.

Penguins Coach Ivan Hlinka didn't like what he saw last night. "In the last two periods, we did some things we haven't done in a long time.

"But I believe we will be ready for Wednesday."

A return by Jagr will significantly help the team's level of readiness.

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

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