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Penguins wake up in time to defeat hapless Thrashers

Thursday, February 10, 2000

By Dave Molinari, Post-Gazette Sports Writer

The Atlanta Thrashers are an expansion team. They haven't won a game since Jan. 14. They should be formally eliminated from playoff contention no later than, oh, sundown tomorrow.

 
  Atlanta's Ruman Ndur lands a shot against the Penguins' Dennis Bonvie. (Lake Fong, Post-Gazette)

They are the kind of team the Penguins can't afford to lose to. The kind of team the Penguins shouldn't lose to. Not without a concerted effort, anyway.

But they came perilously close to it last night, spotting the Thrashers a two-goal lead before staging a four-goal rampage in the third period to salvage a 5-2 victory at Mellon Arena.

The victory was the Penguins' fourth in a row, matching their longest winning streak of the season. It raised their record to 24-25-4 and lifted them into a tie with the New York Rangers for seventh place in the Eastern Conference, two points ahead of Boston.

Right winger Jaromir Jagr volunteered that, "you have to win every game possible," in a playoff race that is so tight, but that reality didn't seem to register with his teammates during the first period or so. They looked sluggish, almost disinterested, through the early part of the game, most of which they spent on their heels.

"The way we started, with about 15 turnovers in the first period, was ... the defensemen not getting the puck up, I just can't believe it," Coach Herb Brooks said. "It was a hockey club I've never seen before."

One, no doubt, he doesn't care to see again.

 
  More on the Penguins:

Penguins Report, 2/10/00

   
 

And while it might be difficult to single out a facet of the Penguins' game that was particularly disappointing during those first 20 minutes -- they were awful in pretty much every area -- their goaltending deserves a prominent spot on the list.

Tom Barrasso stopped eight of 10 shots during the first period, after which he was replaced by Jean-Sebastien Aubin. Brooks said Barrasso was not injured but has been distracted by off-ice issues, most notably his father's battle with cancer.

"Tommy has a lot of things on his mind," Brooks said. "His father is not doing too well. It's just one of those things ... we just relieved him. ... There's a lot of things in Tom's life right now. He's going through some difficult times."

Aubin, who turned aside all 18 shots he faced, received credit for the victory, his 14th of the season.

Right winger Pat Falloon, acquired from Edmonton on waivers Friday, made his Penguins debut last night, skating on a line with Tyler Wright and Matthew Barnaby. He had 15 shifts and two shots but no points.

Aleksey Morozov, who normally works with Wright and Barnaby, shifted into German Titov's spot on the left side with Robert Lang and Alexei Kovalev. Titov missed the game because of the flu.

Jagr pushed his league-leading points total to 82 by setting up the Penguins' second and third goals, but his boss and teammates contend his greatest contribution was his refusal to accept defeat.

"Jaromir was a true leader today," defenseman Darius Kasparaitis said.

"He said, 'All right, boys, follow me. Here we go,'" Brooks said. "It was just an indication. This is his team. ... He wasn't going to lose."

That wasn't necessarily how things looked early on, however, as the Penguins watched Atlanta run up a 2-0 lead on a power-play goal by Denny Lambert two minutes after the opening faceoff, and Steve Staios' shot from high in the right circle at 14:15.

The Penguins seemed to find their legs as the middle of the second period approached, and Martin Straka got them back into the game with a power-play goal at 9:55. The goal was Straka's 12th of the season and fourth in five games.

The Penguins continued to regain their rhythm but still were down, 2-1, when the second intermission arrived. It might have seemed like a good time for a few inspirational words from the captain or coach, but they decided a speech wasn't necessary.

"We didn't have to say anything," Jagr said. "We knew we weren't playing very well."

That changed when the puck was dropped to begin the final period. Jagr set up Jan Hrdina for the tying goal 17 seconds into the third, then gave Rob Brown a drop pass that led to the game-winner at 7:16, as Brown beat Thrashers goalie Norm Maracle from inside the left circle.

"We got lucky that we came hard in the third and scored a couple of quick goals," Kasparaitis said.

Robert Lang expanded the Penguins' comfort zone immeasurably when he took a pass from Morozov and beat Maracle from about eight feet in front at 8:36 to make it 4-2.

Lang, who has a goal in four consecutive games and in five of the past six, has been one of the Penguins' hottest players of late. Morozov, who didn't have a goal in 12 games, has been only of the coldest.

At least until 16:55, when he closed out the scoring with a short-handed goal, thanks to a nice feed from Kovalev.

Morozov's goal cemented the Thrashers' seventh defeat in a row and assured their slump would stretch to 0-9-2. But even though Atlanta's talent level is modest, at best, the Thrashers are well-coached and hard-working, a dangerous combination for any opponent that doesn't take them seriously.

"They don't beat themselves," Brooks said. "You have to beat them."

The Penguins were able to do that, even they'll probably spend a lot of time wincing if they sit down to look at a tape of the game.

"I'm proud of this team," Jagr said. "We were down, 2-0, and we didn't quit."



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