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Kasparaitis itching to return to the lineup

Tuesday, October 12, 1999

By Dave Molinari, Post-Gazette Sports Writer

It's not necessarily his on-ice mean streak that makes Darius Kasparaitis such a feared presence around the NHL.

    More on the Penguins:

Penguins Log, 10/12/99


And it might not be his willingness to stray outside the rules every now and then that players on other teams find so unsettling.

Instead, Penguins Coach Kevin Constantine suggested yesterday, it could be Kasparaitis' unpredictability that makes opponents so wary of him.

The way he will, with neither warning nor provocation, hit an opposing player with the full force of his 5-foot-11, 212-pound body.

Those checks usually are enough to separate a player from the puck. Every now and then, they separate one from his senses, too.

"He's got a style that's tough for an opponent to play against, because you really never know when he's going to step up on you," Constantine said. "You could go 30 minutes and he could have no hits, but then his first hit is so huge that, in the back of your mind when you play against him, you're always wondering if this is the shift when he might be stepping up."

The Penguins have been missing the dimension Kasparaitis provides since March 5, when he sustained damage to the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee during a game against Edmonton.

That injury required reconstructive surgery and a grueling rehabilitation program, but Kasparaitis -- who said his knee "feels better every day" -- finally is on the verge of a comeback.

He has targeted the Penguins' game against Chicago Saturday night at the Civic Arena for his return, but it's premature to say whether he'll actually be in uniform then.

"That's what I'm heading for," Kasparaitis said, "but that's the coach's decision."

Constantine, for his part, is noncommittal. He appears satisfied with Kasparaitis' physical progress but seems uncertain that he has completely absorbed the Penguins' system of play.

So while Constantine said that "if he seems like he really wants to and is really ready, then Saturday's definitely a possibility," he wouldn't guarantee Kasparaitis a spot in the lineup against the Blackhawks.

"We'll have to see how practice goes this week," he said. "Certain parts of his game are ready. From a physical standpoint, I don't think Saturday would be a problem. It's just, is that the best point within our team [framework]? We have the whole next week to get four more practices under his belt, too, so it's tempting to let that happen."

If Kasparaitis sits out the Chicago game, he would not get another chance to play until the following Saturday, when Carolina visits the Civic Arena.

Not dressing against the Blackhawks would deny Kasparaitis a chance to play against a club whose attack-dog style has generated headlines -- and controversy -- across North America since the preseason. The Blackhawks were averaging a league-high 35.5 penalty minutes per game before last night and have come by every second of it honestly.

Which means they are precisely the kind of team he most enjoys competing against.

"I think it's going to be a very physical hockey game," Kasparaitis said. "That's good for me, if I play, because they play very tough hockey, and I love the game that way."

Although this is the second time Kasparaitis' right knee has been rebuilt -- he also sustained a torn ACL on Feb. 20, 1995, while playing for the New York Islanders -- he doesn't expect to dwell on his injury, or the possibility of sustaining another, when he resumes playing.

"When you play, you forget about injuries," he said. "Sometimes you have a bad back or a bad wrist, but you just go out there and play. You don't think about it. During the game, you forget."

Kasparaitis estimated that he'll need just one game to get acclimated to -- and comfortable in -- his old job and said he plans to take a no-frills approach to his work, at least in the short term.

"I'm just going to go there and try to [do] the basics, just get the puck and move it as quick as possible," he said. "Not try to do too much, because I've missed a lot of hockey."

That point isn't lost on Constantine, who is keenly aware that more than seven months have passed since Kasparaitis last appeared in a game.

"He didn't just miss training camp," Constantine said. "He missed training camp and 20 or 30 games at the end of last year. We've made changes during that time, as a team, so some of the stuff is brand new to him."

Chances are, the partner with whom he is eventually paired will be, too. Kasparaitis worked with a variety of them -- Maxim Galanov, Brad Werenka, Bobby Dollas -- last season, and it's too early to tell who he'll play alongside now.

"We have four new [defensemen] back there, the way it is," Constantine said. "This is such a work-in-progress with our D right now that there's just going to be so many changes, probably. If history repeats itself, it will take us two months to really see what works, not only for [defensive pairings] working together, but which [pairings] work best with certain style of forwards."

While Constantine isn't certain of Kasparaitis' partner, he knows precisely what he can count on him to contribute.

"He's going to add a lot of pizzazz and energy," Constantine said.

And the occasional seismic bodycheck, like the one he laid on Philadelphia center Eric Lindros two seasons ago to set the late-1990s standard for such hits.

That's an element of Kasparaitis' game that he has no intention of dropping just because of two knee injuries, although he acknowledged the importance of doing his job within the structure laid out by Constantine.

"I'll be the same player, hopefully," Kasparaitis said. "I know I'm always going to play hard. But I can't go in the first game and look for the big hits, because you have to follow the team plan. If I have a chance to finish a check, I'll do it. It doesn't matter how I feel, because that's how I am. That's how I play the game."

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