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Smizik: Hlinka lining team up for loss

Sunday, May 06, 2001

BUFFALO, N.Y. -- Hockey is played for three periods, sometimes longer, and has been probably since the game was invented. Which is too bad for the Penguins.

For any number of reasons, the Penguins have evolved into a two-period team, and this unfortunate characteristic has them a game from elimination in the Stanley Cup playoffs.

They did it again yesterday at HSBC Arena by taking a one-goal lead against the Buffalo Sabres after two periods only to falter the rest of the way and lose, 3-2, in overtime.

Over the past three games, all losses, Buffalo has outscored the Penguins, 8-0, after two periods.

This lopsided late scoring indicates the Penguins are tired and that the decision of Coach Ivan Hlinka to go primarily with three lines in the regular season and the playoffs was a massive miscalculation.

Buffalo Coach Lindy Ruff regularly uses four lines, and his strategy could well be the difference in the series, which resumes Tuesday night at Mellon Arena with the Sabres leading, 3-2.

"As the games have gone on, we've skated extremely well," Ruff said. "I think the only explanation is maybe we've used more personnel and we're just a little more fresher."

Goalie Dominik Hasek said: "We play four lines and everybody contributes a little bit. They also played four lines but their top lines spend more time on the ice. Maybe by the end of the game they are a little bit tired."

No maybes about it.

Although Hlinka used a fourth line yesterday more than he has in most previous games, it wasn't enough. The Penguins once again were out of gas in the final minutes.

They didn't score in the final 48 minutes, 50 seconds yesterday, an alarming trend that began after they won the first two games of the series. In Game 4, the Penguins didn't score in the final 34:36. In Game 3, the didn't score in the final 34:26.

It all paints a picture of a team that has nothing left. And why should it?

Consider the game yesterday. The Penguins' top line of Mario Lemieux, Jaromir Jagr and Jan Hrdina averaged more than 23 minutes of playing time. Lemieux, who is 35 and coming off a retirement of more than two years, and Jagr both played more than 26 minutes.

Lemieux has regularly skated more than 20 minutes per game, even in the early days of his comeback, which began in December.

By contrast, the line regarded as Buffalo's top unit, Miroslav Satan, Doug Gilmour and Maxim Afinogenov, averaged less than 18 minutes of ice time. Only Satan played more than 20 minutes.

The Penguins' second line of Martin Straka, Alexei Kovalev and Robert Lang averaged more than 20 minutes per man. The Buffalo second unit of Stu Barnes, Donald Audette and J.P. Dumont averaged 18 minutes.

It makes a difference.

Although it is widely believe that Lemieux has significant input with Hlinka, as a superstar and owner, his pleas of more time for a fourth line have largely been ignored. Lemieux has been talking up the fourth line since the start of the playoffs.

Compounding the Penguins' plight was a significant number of penalties. The team took five in the second period -- while Buffalo took one -- and that further sapped the players' energy. Lemieux and the entire second line are used to kill penalties.

"We're up 2-0 and we take five straight penalties. That's inexcusable," said third-line winger Kevin Stevens. "That's something we can't do. It makes our penalty killers work extra hard."

"We spent too much energy killing penalties," Jagr said. "You need those guys to score power-play goals or five-on-five goals."

The demanding workload, which he has gladly accepted, could be catching up to Lemieux.

He had an assist yesterday but was held without a goal for the fourth consecutive game. Like Jagr, who had the Penguins' first goal, he has only one goal for the series.

If the Penguins' collapse is bringing to mind last season, when they won the first two games in the second round against Philadelphia and lost the next four, the play of Lemieux and Jagr is bringing to mind the conference final in 1996.

In that seven-game series against the Florida Panthers, Lemieux and Jagr were held to a combined two goals -- none in the final five games.

Ruff was an assistant coach with Florida that season.

"We doing a lot of the same things," he said. "There are a lot of parallels."

With the greatest parallel being, of course, that Ruff's team won that series and, by all indications, it will win this one, too.

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

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