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Madden: Surovy bright spot in so many ways

Saturday, February 22, 2003

I finally see light at the end of the Penguins' tunnel. And, no, it's not an oncoming train.

After seeing the Penguins draft and develop washout after washout -- and after seeing the "prospects" acquired in the Jaromir Jagr trade look none too stellar to date -- rookie forward Tomas Surovy has played well enough to erase the memories of bums like Robert Dome and Chris Wells. Surovy, a mere fourth-round pick in 2001, has three goals in four games and shows no signs of stopping.

My advice to Rick Kehoe: Put Surovy on the power play and on Mario Lemieux's line. Maybe Surovy's skill and panache will help to restore some of the big boy's clearly fading enthusiasm.

Surovy isn't just scoring. He's scoring great goals on great goalies. Martin Brodeur, Tommy Salo and Patrick Roy have been his victims so far.

Maybe he's just a flash in the pan, a guy who will start great, then disappear, like Michal Sivek. But I don't think so. I know a goal-scorer when I see one. Surovy is a goal-scorer. The shot he crushed past Colorado's Roy Thursday night would beat Roy 10 times out of 10. Roy is only the greatest goalie ever.

Surovy plays the game with his head up, especially when the puck is on his stick. When he beat Roy, he kept looking for options until the instant he chose to shoot. By doing so, he made Roy stay in his crease, making him easier to beat. When Surovy shot, there was no hesitation.

By contrast, consider Randy Robitaille's partial breakaway against Roy. Robitaille telegraphed his shot by burying his head and looking at the puck. That allowed Roy to skate out, challenge Robitaille and easily stop him. Robitaille is 27. For him, bad habits are going to die hard.

But Surovy is 21, and already he's doing things that are a bit special.

Here's another thing to like about him: On Thursday, after scoring his third goal in four career NHL games, he was angry.

"I can't be happy when I score and we lose," he said.

A lot of hockey players say that. It was easy to tell that Surovy meant it. Most 21-year-olds would be on Cloud Nine, win or lose, after torturing Roy, and you couldn't blame them. But Surovy's burning eyes and disappointed tone confirmed the truth in his words.

Surovy can do more than shoot. Against New Jersey, he violently knocked the Devils' Scott Gomez off the puck, allowing Ville Nieminen to collect it and score.

So kids, get those No. 43 jerseys. Better yet, tell equipment manager Steve Latin to get Surovy some decent digits. This kid is too good to wear a free safety's number.

The Penguins are at a crossroads in many respects, so some tough decisions must be made. Once it becomes apparent that making the playoffs is a dead issue -- which should be the case at about 6 p.m. tomorrow -- then it's time to look to the future. It might be a good time to rest -- or shoot -- some of the borderline veterans who don't figure to be here long term and get a long look at some young players.

I'm not talking about just the young players currently on the Penguins' major-league roster, either. I'm talking about Kris Beech, Brooks Orpik, Konstantin Koltosov and any other prospects of pedigree that are toiling for the Penguins' Wilkes-Barre/Scranton minor-league team.

Beech and Orpik are 22, Koltsov 21. All were first-round draft choices. They should be ready for the NHL now. If not, why not? Twenty games worth of playing a regular shift in the NHL would give those three a lot of confidence and answer a lot of questions in the process.

It's time for the Penguins to quit trying to eke into the playoffs by acquiring washed-up veterans. It's time to have faith in youth and build toward having a good team in the future even if it means having a bad team now. Anything is better than slightly sub-playoff mediocrity. If you're going to miss the postseason by a little, why not miss by a lot? Just get a true rebuilding process started.

The true dreamers among you are undoubtedly now thinking: "Why waste Mario's last few seasons rebuilding? You've got to try to get him one final Cup run."

I've got some bad news, gang. It's news Lemieux is surely cognizant of. There isn't going to be one final Cup run. Mario's last best chance was in 2001, his comeback season. From here on, scoring championships are the only championships he can realistically pursue.

I am legitimately worried Lemieux might not be back next season. He often looks utterly dejected on the bench, and I don't think it's just because of the losing.

I think Lemieux is frustrated by having no one of even remotely like caliber to play with. Rico Fata and Mikael Samuelsson don't make anyone forget Kevin Stevens and Rick Tocchet. In fact, they make me remember Steve Gatzos and Lee Giffin. Combine that with the NHL's laughable officiating -- a Colorado player hooked Lemieux from blue line to goal line Thursday without being penalized -- and it's easy to see why Mario seems depressed.

Skating on a line with a bright young talent such as Surovy might not be the answer for Lemieux. But it's definitely worth a try.

Mark Madden is the host of a sports talk show from 3-7 p.m. weekdays on WEAE-AM (1250).

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