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Madden: Hlinka a problem, not a solution

Saturday, May 05, 2001

Game 5 today between the Penguins and Sabres is a litmus test for many people in the Penguins' organization. Can Johan Hedberg bounce back? Can Mario Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr still conjure the big goal on command? Should most of the defensive corps be shot?

But as much as anyone, Coach Ivan Hlinka has something to prove. Today, we find out if any of Hlinka's sterling international reputation translates to NHL success, or if he really is Ivan the Horrible.

I'm betting on the latter.

Hlinka has been badly outcoached by Buffalo's Lindy Ruff, standing there with his arms folded while Ruff dissects the Penguins' left-wing lock with unerring precision. Fans and media are clamoring for Hlinka to find a counter for Ruff's counter, but I've got some news for them: If Hlinka knew what he was doing, he'd have changed his team's strategy for Game 4. He wouldn't have waited.

After Game 4, of course, owner/player Mario Lemieux said that the coaches had to figure something out. So Hlinka will likely change things today. We'll see if it's for the better.

There are some things Hlinka can't undo. The Penguins are exhausted, and that's because of his insistence on playing just three lines all season. For those who say Lemieux really coaches the team, consider this: Mario often has been quoted as saying the Penguins need to use their fourth line more. Yet Hlinka has continued to go with three lines -- not just now, but during virtually meaningless games during the regular season. In the third periods of games that had long been decided.

It's easy to understand why Hlinka does that. In the Czech beer league -- excuse me, in the Czech elite league where he previously coached, the schedule is much smaller and less congested than the NHL slate. You can get away with using only three lines. There are fewer games, and there's more rest between games.

Hlinka understands that level of hockey. But not only is the NHL the best hockey league in the world, it also goes at a breakneck pace. You need to use four lines. Hlinka doesn't get that.

The best thing Hlinka could do today is get out of the way. Ditch the left-wing lock, let the Penguins utilize their awesome offensive talent, hope that Sabres goalie Dominik Hasek isn't too torrid to solve and hope that Hedberg can rebound from his miserable performance in Game 4.

The Penguins' commitment to defense in these playoffs has been cute -- after all, playoff hockey is different from regular-season hockey, or so the cliche goes -- but they've gone overboard with that concept. Lemieux has been amazing on defense, but I actually think he might give the team a better chance to win if he'd score a lot. Forgive me, I know that's not traditional playoff hockey, but I don't think it helps the Penguins when Lemieux spends more time behind his own net than he does in the offensive zone.

Anyway, Ruff has picked the left-wing lock. For a team playing defense first, the Penguins sure spent a lot of time fishing pucks out of their own net the past two games.

The Penguins should go with what they know. Practice defensive diligence, but attack, attack, attack. Hockey like that, thank God, takes coaching pretty much out of the equation.

Of course, the Penguins' organization has never paid the coaching profession much respect.

With the most recent exception being Kevin Constantine, hired in 1997 when Lemieux retired and the Penguins were short on talent, the team has rarely employed an impact coach. Bob Johnson qualifies, and so did Scotty Bowman until he was neutered when the players threw him out of practice. Eddie Johnston wasn't a bad coach -- in fact, he was a darn good game coach -- but he was hired because of his relationship with Lemieux and because he was around anyway. Herb Brooks was a stop-gap, and he largely negated himself once he figured out he couldn't stand Tom Barrasso and Jaromir Jagr.

This season, with a very skilled team, the Penguins inexplicably hired Hlinka, a man who had never coached a day in the NHL, a man who had only played in the league for two years. Yeah, I know, the Penguins have a lot of Czechs. So what? This isn't Litvinov. This isn't the Olympics. This is the NHL. Hlinka has proven he doesn't understand the NHL practically every day he's been in it. His ineptitude at matching lines is embarrassing.

Don't blame Hlinka. Blame the Penguins' organization. Ever since Bowman got run out of town, the Penguins have usually given the importance of coaching very short shrift. They seem to think coaching doesn't matter, that the players and the players alone decide every game.

That's not true. That was proven in Games 3 and 4 against Buffalo when Ruff decided the games.

No matter what happens this series -- or in these playoffs -- Hlinka must go. If the Penguins win the Stanley Cup, it will be despite him. The team must hire a coach who can have an impact on results and truly help make the most out of Lemieux's last years as a player.

Mark Madden is the host of a sports talk show 4 to 8 p.m. weekdays on WEAE-AM (1250).

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