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Smizik: Plenty of players for blame game

Tuesday, May 08, 2001

The storybook season that vaulted the Penguins and the National Hockey League to the giddy heights of prime national exposure could be hours away from an earlier-than-expected conclusion.

So, too, could the Penguins career of the second-greatest player ever to wear the franchise's uniform.

So might the bold move that brought Ivan Hlinka, coach of the Czech Republic Olympic champions, to North America to guide the Penguins.

There was a time when the Penguins playoff dance had the look of a long-running drama, not one that would end six games into the second round.

How did the seemingly secure grip the Penguins had in this series with the Buffalo Sabres vanish to the point where they will be eliminated if they lose tonight at Mellon Arena?

How did the Penguins go, in the space of six days, from a team up, 2-0, and seemingly moving virtually unimpeded toward the conference final and possibly to the Stanley Cup championship round to a team a game away from elimination in early May?

How did the team that had been playing so astonishingly well on defense suddenly become so deficient in that aspect of play to be outscored, 8-0, after the second period the past three defeats?

It's a scenario that is ripe for the playing of the blame game.

A list of the leading characters:

Mario Lemieux. His return from more than three seasons of retirement sparked national interest and the belief the Penguins could be a team to be reckoned with in the playoffs. On one level, Lemieux's play has been heroic. He has been diving to block shots, killing penalties and being a defensive demon. This is leadership at its highest level and what is expected of Lemieux.

But he's not doing -- despite the fact he leads the playoffs in scoring -- what made him rich, famous and worshipped. He's not scoring goals. His only goal in this series came in the first period of the first game.

Jaromir Jagr. There's more than idle speculation to the notion he'll be traded in the off-season, and, therefore, this might be in his final game for the Penguins. He played well and scored a goal in Game 5, after missing two games with injury. But Jagr also is not doing what made him rich and famous. His goal Saturday was his first of the series and his second in nine playoff games. That's not up to the standards of a five-time NHL scoring champion.

Hlinka. His decision to use two forwards at the point on a third-period power play Saturday led to a short-handed goal by the Sabres, which tied the score and sent it to overtime. His failure to regularly use four lines, which might be the reason the Penguins have been so overwhelmingly outscored late in the past three games, also seems to be a strategical shortcoming.

Jan Hrdina. He's not expected to match the play of linemates Lemieux and Jagr, but he -- and this is difficult to believe -- has not taken a shot in the past four games.

Alexei Kovalev, Martin Straka and Robert Lang. This line, from which much was expected, has accounted for seven goals and seven assists in 11 games, and this after accumulating 105 goals and 167 assists in 82 regular-season games. Their play in the Buffalo series has declined even further. Of their three goals in the second round, one by Straka came on a power play and another by Kovalev went into an empty net. Only Lang's goal in Game 2 was even-strength. What was one of the NHL's most productive lines has become nearly invisible.

In discussing what's gone wrong with the Penguins, Kevin Stevens pointed to that time-honored hockey excuse of not enough hard work.

"You have to play every shift like it's your last shift. There's no excuses. Everyone has to be thinking it might be the last shift of the year, it might be the last shift in this locker room. It comes down to being man enough to go out and do your job. If we do that, I think we'll win," he said.

"I don't think we've done that. I know I can play better and everyone in this locker room can play better."

Lemieux understands the blame game. He knows it usually gets back to him.

"There's always going to be heat on me," he said. "That's fine. The top players should be responsible for winning and losing. It hasn't changed since the early '90s. If we lose, I'll take the blame and I don't have a problem with that."

Imagine that! If the Penguins lose, the blame rests with Lemieux -- among others. This storybook season that once seemed such a wonderful adventure could be turning into a nightmare.

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

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