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Madden: Young Penguins get chance to star

Saturday, November 03, 2001

Mario Lemieux, Alexei Kovalev and Martin Straka are injured. Jaromir Jagr is in Washington. That's 158 goals from last season out of the Penguins' lineup.

If the Penguins are, indeed, a borderline playoff team, this is a make-or-break portion of the season. And if Kris Beech, Milan Kraft and Aleksey Morozov are worthy of the pedigree and paycheck that goes with being first-round draft picks, this is make-or-break time for them, too.

Criticize Morozov for scoring zero goals in 12 games if you like. But at least give him credit for not living in denial. He knows he has a lot on the line right now.

"I feel like I have to score," Morozov said after the Penguins' 3-1 victory Thursday against Toronto. "We're missing some good guys, scoring guys. This is my moment. I need to step up."

Morozov has gotten only sporadic ice time in his previous four seasons in Pittsburgh. Drafted in the first round in 1995, Since arriving in Pittsburgh in 1997, he has usually been miscast as a third- or fourth-liner while getting precious little power-play time. He's rarely been put in a position to utilize his considerable talents.

But now, with Kovalev out at least two more weeks, Lemieux out for another month and Straka likely out for the season, Morozov will be given every chance to score and to succeed. So will Beech and Kraft. No more excuses. Results only.

Morozov sits upon a much hotter seat than Beech or Kraft. Beech, 20, is in his first year with the Penguins' organization. He played only four NHL games before this season. Kraft, 21, played just 42 NHL games before the current campaign. Morozov is 24. He has 289 NHL games under his belt and has tallied just 39 goals. The Penguins' coaching staff isn't publicly pressuring Morozov to fill the net, but they have certainly made their expectations known privately.

Morozov, Beech and Kraft all got drafted in the first round because of their potential for production. They need to produce.

Production, of course, begins with getting good chances. The Penguins have generated very few in the two games since Straka's leg was broken and Lemieux's hip surgery was announced.

Don't confuse chances with shots. Anyone can gun a puck right into a goaltender. The Penguins, in fact, excelled at hitting Flyers goalie Brian Boucher in a 3-0 loss Wednesday at Philadelphia. Boucher made 27 saves but barely had to move to do so. To me, a good chance is a shot taken between the faceoff dots and below the tops of the circles in the opposing team's end. When the shot is released, the goalie should have to move in brisk and determined fashion to make the save. Given said criteria, Boucher could have picked up the shutout Wednesday with his skate blades welded together.

The Penguins generated an acceptable amount of quality chances in their win Thursday. But Morozov, Beech and Kraft failed to score. They have just two goals between them, both by Kraft.

"Everybody's got to chip in a goal or two," said Beech. But it would be silly to think that pluggers such as Wayne Primeau and Dan LaCouture can pick up the scoring slack. It would be unrealistic to think that Kevin Stevens and Stephane Richer can return to their big-goal glory days (although Richer has certainly been doing a reasonable impression of his high-scoring former self lately). It would be nice to think that hard work and team play can make up for the loss of 158 goals, but there is no substitute for talent.

Morozov, Beech and Kraft have talent. The Penguins' streak of 11 consecutive playoff appearances might be in their hands. Not that they should feel pressure.

The Penguins are a disaster area. Their locker room should be cordoned off with yellow tape. They've done a good job keeping a brave face, but they're being forced to play a remarkably weak lineup. The Penguins play 13 games in November. They could dig themselves quite a hole before Lemieux returns.

When he speaks with the media, Coach Rick Kehoe understandably downplays the role that Morozov, Beech and Kraft must assume.

"We don't want to put pressure on them to score," said Kehoe after the game Thursday. "We want them to go out and play the game, play good defense, and, if they get the scoring opportunity, take it. A guy like Beechie, he's still getting his feet wet. It's going to be a matter of getting that first one. I was hoping he'd put one in the empty net after Toronto pulled the goalie. Anything to get started."

Beech is extremely skilled. Once he gets started, he might not stop. Same goes for Morozov and Kraft. Those three have been thrust into a difficult situation. Before the current spate of injuries, ice time wasn't plentiful and goals weren't required. Suddenly they're expected to be key players. Some might consider that unfair. Morozov, Beech and Kraft should consider it opportunity and make the most of it.

If the Penguins stop scoring and go on a losing streak, General Manager Craig Patrick might have to deal for an established sniper even if it means mortgaging a bit of the future. Ivan Hlinka was fired after four games because the Penguins couldn't afford an extended slump. They still can't.


Mark Madden's talk show can be heard from 3 to 7 p.m. weekdays on WEAE-AM (1250).

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