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Penguins Kehoe's changes make a big difference

Wednesday, October 17, 2001

By Dejan Kovacevic, Post-Gazette Sports Writer

Rick Kehoe reported to work at Mellon Arena yesterday morning for his first full day as the Penguins’ head coach, and it didn’t feel as if his world changed a bit.

He parked in the same spot. He greeted the same security guards. He even reported to the same office, a multiple-desk room he long had shared with his fellow assistants, electing not to move into the luxurious quarters provided for the head coach in an adjacent space.

Rick Kehoe: First night on the job.
(Peter Diana, Post-Gazette)

“I liked where I was,” Kehoe said. “They might force me in there, but it’s not because I want to go in there. I’m not a guy for big changes.”

One thing did change by evening’s end, though.

The Penguins won a game.

And that was a change Kehoe embraced, albeit in his standard, understated manner.

“It’s great that we got the win, and I’m happy,” he said after his players drubbed the Ottawa Senators, 5-2, with an inspired effort last night at Mellon Arena. “But I’ve been in this business a long time, and I know it goes up and down like a yo-yo. ... I mean, we lost our first four games, so this is more of a relief than anything.”

Kehoe, as is his wont, deflected any plaudits directed his way. He pointed instead to the work of Ed Johnston, the assistant general manager who came down from the overhead booth to help him on the bench. And to assistant coaches Randy Hillier and Joe Mullen. And, of course, to the players.

But there is plenty of evidence to illustrate that he was instrumental in ending the season-opening slide that prompted the team to fire Ivan Hlinka Monday.

Most apparent was his decision to shake up the forward lines, including the surprising combination of center Mario Lemieux between left winger Martin Straka and right winger Toby Petersen. It took them all of 30 seconds to get a Petersen a goal, less than two more periods to get him three. Lemieux had three assists, Straka two.

“They had a little success tonight,” Kehoe said, managing a half-smile. “I think we’re going to leave them together for a few more games.”

Center Robert Lang also netted two goals, and the team as a whole appeared to climb out of the funk in which they scored only seven times in the first four games. They skated swiftly, forechecked hard and pulled off more than a few fancy plays, the kind which had been noticeably absent from their game.

“When you’re dead, the way we all were in those games, everybody gets tense. That’s why we weren’t scoring,” defenseman Ian Moran said. “Chico made a difference, sure. He came into our room and talked to us, loosened us up a little and stressed some good habits. It wasn’t some mind-altering thing, but you could see out there it made a difference.”

So did Kehoe’s emphasis on special teams.

He had spent much of his initial day-plus on the job instructing his penalty-killers, frustrated that the Penguins had allowed goals on 5 of 23 opposing power plays, a 78.3 percent success rate. He and his assistants singled out the penalty-killers in a meeting yesterday morning, instructing them to be more aggressive.

“That’s what you want,” goaltender Johan Hedberg said. “If you see something the other team really wants to do, you have to take it away from them. Keep sticks in the passing lanes and jump at them when we get the chance. I like that. I like when we’re aggressive. It keeps all of us on our toes all the time.”

The Penguins killed all seven Ottawa power plays, marking the first time this season they hadn’t allowed a power-play goal, and Lang scored short-handed.

Kehoe also switched up the power play a bit, placing more emphasis on point shots and traffic in the low slot. Left winger Kevin Stevens delivered the traffic, taking some severe abuse near Ottawa goaltender Patrick Lalime, and the Penguins -- finally -- delivered their first power-play goal of the season on Lang’s tap-in at 14:00 of the second period.

“Our special teams really came through,” Kehoe said. “Ottawa’s got one of the best power plays in the league, and we held them to 0 for 7, and we even get one on the power play and short-handed. It can’t get much better than that.”

Finally, and most relevant by far if less tangible, Kehoe seemed to instill a sense of purpose in the Penguins.

Even though he has had little time for pep talks, he addressed the players about the need to bond, to understand that each is critical to the team’s success. And he backed that up in the game by religiously rolling four forward lines. No player had less ice time than fourth-line right winger Dan LaCouture’s 7:39, and no one more than Lemieux’s 21:34.

“We had a great tempo on the bench,” Petersen said. “Everything was moving really quickly, and everybody was really into it.”

“You have to try to give everybody a role and make sure they stay involved,” Kehoe said. “Stevens has a role on this team. LaCouture has a role on this team. Everybody needs to be in the game. I think that’s very important.”

What Kehoe didn’t find all that important was his first victory as an NHL head coach.

As his players filed off the ice following the game, he awaited them at the edge of the runway and shook the hand of each. But he hardly delivered a tearful thank-you speech in the locker room afterward.

“What am I going to say?” Kehoe said. “We’ve got 77 games to go. The entire coaching staff is happy with the way we played tonight, especially because we really needed to get a win. That’s what counts here. That’s always what counts.”

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