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Penguins' Hit Man returns to form

Thursday, November 19, 1998

By Dave Molinari, Post-Gazette Sports Writer

TAMPA, Fla. - Penguins defenseman Darius Kasparaitis was at his home on Long Island in the waning days of September, fretting over his damaged knee and wondering how many games he would be able to participate in this season.

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And grimacing when he realized he would need no more than the fingers on one hand to total them.

"I looked at my team schedule, and I marked the games when I was going to play," Kasparaitis said. "It was ... (in) April, like five games at the end of the season."

It was right around then that Kasparaitis decided to accelerate the timetable for his comeback a bit. By six months, to be precise.

He decided to put off the surgery that had been scheduled to repair his injury - most evidence suggests he has a severely torn anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee - and subject himself to a rigorous rehabilitation program, instead.

And by the end of October, the guy who had been expected to miss virtually the entire season was back in uniform, ready to resume taking a regular shift.

"I looked at the schedule the other day, and told myself, 'Look, I'm playing already. That's pretty impressive,' " Kasparaitis said. "My No. 1 goal was to come back and play as many games as possible and, so far, I'm doing pretty good."

Kasparaitis should run his games-played total to seven when the Penguins face Tampa Bay tonight at 7:08 at the Ice Palace. He had to leave their 4-1 loss to Philadelphia Tuesday during the second period because of a neck injury, but accompanied the team here yesterday and is scheduled to play against the Lightning.

Just how much he'll be used remains to be seen because Kasparaitis still isn't carrying his usual workload.

Coach Kevin Constantine said he has "backed his ice time off by about five or 10 percent," at least in part because of concerns about Kasparaitis' game conditioning, especially immediately after he rejoined the team late last month.

"The first three games back, we really wondered during the game, 'Is he going to make it through the game? Is he going to be all right?' " Constantine said. "But the last [few] games, I haven't even thought about him [in terms of] whether he's going to make it through the whole game."

And while Constantine said the Penguins are "trying not to get him into a fatigue situation," no one who knows Kasparaitis is surprised to hear that he craves extra work.

"I'm playing an average of about 15 minutes a game," he said. "I'd like to play more, but that's up to the coach."

Truth be told, he'd like to play better, too. For while it is nothing shy of remarkable that Kasparaitis is back on active duty, it also is clear that his game is not up to its usual level.

There is no consensus, though, on just how far Kasparaitis is from his normal standard. That's difficult to assess, even tougher to quantify.

Constantine placed Kasparaitis at "over 90 percent right now," and said that, "he seems to be, right now, playing and hitting and competing, if not at last year's [level], then pretty close."

Kasparaitis, conversely, offered that, "maybe I'm 70 percent," adding almost wistfully that, "I'm still so far from where I want to play this game."

No one, however, can accuse him of being down so much as an ounce of testosterone. Concerns about his knee occasionally make him reluctant to go into the corners in search of prey, but he has thrown some huge hits during the past few games.

It's safe to assume that guys like Jason Dawe of the New York Islanders and Florida's Ed Jovanovski, both of whom have absorbed big-time checks from Kasparaitis of late, agree that his zeal for body contact hasn't diminished since last season.

"He seems to be right back at it," Constantine said.

Indeed, Kasparaitis has formulated a whole new objective in recent days. Now that he's playing fairly well in his own end and is taking the body more often, he'd like to add a bit of balance to his game.

"I just want to score one goal," he said.

That might be a bit much to hope for - after all, Kasparaitis doesn't even have an assist yet this season - but there's nothing wrong with aiming high. Hey, that's what Kasparaitis did in late September, when he called off his surgery. He has to be thrilled with how things have gone since then.

After all, from a medical standpoint, the worst thing that's happened since he returned was swelling in his knee that forced him to sit out the Penguins' game in Ottawa Nov. 5. Of course, he realizes that it's pretty much guaranteed he'll have to have an operation at some point.

"Hopefully, it will be after the season, and hopefully, just [arthroscopic surgery], to see that nothing major happened," Kasparaitis said. "But you never know. I just want to play the season and the playoffs, and then we'll see."

NOTES - The Penguins recalled center Sean Pronger from Houston in the International Hockey League. He had 11 goals and seven assists in 16 games with the Aeros. Pronger fills an opening created when defensemen Victor Ignatjev in jured a shoulder when checked from behind by Flyers winger Roman Vopat late in the game Tuesday. Constantine said Ignatjev "will be out for probably four or five games." ... Tampa Bay, which has been outscored, 22-4, while losing three games in a row, has shaken up its lineup in recent days, demoting the likes of forward Paul Ysebaert and defensemen David Wilkie and Michal Sykora to its Cleveland farm team. Sykora and Ysebaert have balked at joining the Lumberjacks and investigated the possibility of playing in Europe. ... Tampa Bay should get winger Stephane Richer, who is recovering from ankle surgery, back tonight, but will be without former Penguins defenseman Kjell Samuelsson (broken foot) and forwards Rob Zamuner (groin) and Mikael Renberg (broken thumb).

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