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Savran: If Penguins adjust, Buffalo fried in 6

Saturday, May 05, 2001

There's something happening here. What it is ain't exactly clear.
-- "For What It's Worth"
Buffalo Springfield

Weird that a lyric from a band with Buffalo in its name encapsulates this unexpected turn of fortune. The Buffalo Sabres have made something happen by making adjustments. It is now the Penguins' move in this game of ice chess, their turn to adjust to the adjustments.

That is what the playoffs are all about -- adjusting. The greatest test of a coaching staff is its ability to get in front of its counterparts, then react if necessary. Lindy Ruff has caught up. So Ivan Hlinka and company are "it" in this game of strategical tag.

But let's not allow the players to wriggle off the hook of responsibility.

In the locker room after Game 4, Penguins players lamented a tactical advantage Buffalo seems to have gained and issued a not so thinly veiled challenge to their own coaches to neutralize that advantage.

Fine, but since when have players on this team ever been shy about voicing opinions? It is tradition around here. Why stop now, when this series and run for the Cup are at a crossroads? This is no time to zip lips, no time to stand back with arms folded, as if they're proctors administering a midterm exam to their rookie coach. Got something to say? Speak up.

What is the something that's happened here?

Buffalo has begun to maximize its major advantage: quicker forwards and more of them. Ruff has reversed an old sports maxim to suit his team. For them, the best defense is a good offense. Rather than sit back and try to defend the Penguins' top two lines, he's turned the tables and forced them to play defense. Can't score from your own end.

Most of the Penguins' shifts are spent -- wasted -- mucking around in their own zone.

Andrew Ference has more points than Alexei Kovalev, Martin Straka or Robert Lang!

That second line, which could and should be the difference in this series, has yet to score an even-strength goal. It is possible to generate offense and still be defensively responsible. The Penguins need to find balance instead of praying for the first goal and then going into a shell the rest of the game.

Put another feather in the Sabres' helmets. They realized Johan Hedberg is so fundamentally sound, he's in perfect, square-to-the-shooter position before a shot even leaves the stick. So they figured their best chance to beat him was to test his lateral movement. He has since given up two wraparound goals, neither of which will ever be entered in the Moose's scrapbook.

When I saw the Sabres test Hedberg's pipe-to-pipe movement, I thought back 1996 and Jim Carey of the Washington Capitals.

The scourge of the NHL during that regular season, once Eddie Johnston figured out Carey stayed too far back in net and had great difficulty moving laterally, the Penguins not only drove him from the series, they virtually helped drive him out of the league once other teams caught on.

Although that won't happen to Hedberg, give Buffalo credit for changing its approach on how to turn, at least temporarily, Moose into Buffalo steak.

Before Penguins fans begin to wave their antlers in surrender, let's remember Games 3 and 4 were tied at the end of two periods. The three-goal margins are not indicative of the texture of those games.

The Sabres outscoring the Penguins, the best third-period team in the NHL, 6-0, the past two games is of huge concern. Is Buffalo's extra line beginning to take a physical toll? The Penguins' unwillingness to play a fourth line has been much discussed. But that might now have turned into an inability to field one. With Josef Beranek out, and Krzysztof Oliwa unreliable because he can't keep his elbows to himself, there's a paucity of available, capable forwards.

There are miles to go before this series is put to sleep. The Penguins looked and spoke like a tired, emotionally drained team Wednesday night. Isn't it possible, from an emotional perspective, the first two games of this series were actually an extension of the series against Washington? That the Penguins were riding the emotional wave of their opening round triumph and were due to come down from that high? But now there have been two days off, as there will be between Games 5 and 6. I think that will be an immense advantage and serve to recharge the Penguins' batteries.

Additionally, they must forget how they got to this 2-2 count. Clearly, Buffalo has the momentum, but that'll last only until the first goal today. Then Game 5 will take on a life of its own. What is important to remember isn't so much that the Penguins lost the past two games, but how and why they lost them. If they can do that, it says here Game 6 Tuesday will be the last of this series, but not the last of this season.

Stan Savran is the host of a sports talk show, 8 to 9pm weekdays on WBGG-AM (970).

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