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Savran: Penguins need to learn how to use their newfound muscle

Sunday, February 04, 2001

If you've got it, flaunt it. So the saying goes. But first, you'd better make sure you know what you've got before the flaunting begins.


Stan Savran is host of a radio sports talk show, weeknights from 8-9 on WBGG-AM (970).


The Penguins, as recently constructed, belong on a psychiatrist's couch, not a sheet of ice. They are in the midst of an identity crisis. They're struggling to discover who they are, what they are, and what they want to be.

There's no question the game Wednesday night with Philadelphia was more about flaunting than playing hockey. They had a brand new shiny pair of shoes they just couldn't wait to wear. And who better to show them off to than the team that has tormented them for so many years ... not only in deed, but in method.

On balance, the Flyers have not only been able to beat the Penguins, they have beaten them up in the process. At last, a fair and even fight. Biceps for biceps, knuckle sandwich for knuckle sandwich, the Penguins were bound and determined to show the Broad Street Boors that they weren't the only gang of toughs in the Commonwealth. If forgetting to play to their true strengths was the consequence, so be it. In trying to establish a new identity, the Penguins have misplaced the one they had.

This team being constructed for the long haul of a long playoff run, especially this early in the season, should be construed as good news. Craig Patrick doesn't make the volume or type of trades he has made unless he thinks this team can go all the way. But now, they must figure out who they are. They have some volatile ingredients, but haven't quite figured out how to mix them. They're saber-rattling, flaunting just to flaunt.

This newfound fistic prowess should be used to intimidate, not initiate. In the past four games, they've been short-handed 28 times. That they've managed to kill 24 of the 28 is inconsequential. You cannot constantly put yourself in the position of having to kill that many penalties and still expect to win. Especially against the better teams, especially in the playoffs.

First of all, it keeps your most talented players off the ice. Even Mario Lemieux can't score from the bench. It destroys the shift rotation, disrupts any flow you might develop because you're in a defensive posture for a quarter of the game.

Secondly, there's nothing more tiring than killing penalties, so it extracts a physical toll on regular penalty-killers such as Martin Straka and Alexei Kovalev, not to mention the defensemen, of which there are only six.

The type of penalty they've been guilty of taking is also an issue. If you're going to go, make sure you take someone with you. If you get five, make sure he gets five. But what we've seen from these new pugilistic Penguins are the roughing and elbowing minors that accomplish little more than putting you short-handed. And remember, this is a team that ranks in the bottom third of the league in penalty- killing.

What's also of concern is which players are taking the penalties. If it's Steve McKenna or Krzysztof Oliwa, that's expected. But this team cannot afford to lose Bob Boughner for 17 minutes as it did the other night. Nor Kevin Stevens and Straka for four apiece as was the case against Philadelphia. Be tough, but be smart, too.

This sport is unique in that to be a championship contender, each and every player, from Mario to Moran to McKenna, must have his role clearly defined. The player in turn must completely understand it and discipline himself in it.

Predictably, given that seven players weren't on the team at Christmas, the Penguins are like 20 marbles rolling around on a plate with 20 indentations. Each marble must find its slot before they can jell into a team. Ivan Hlinka's biggest challenge now is to figure out what he has, how to use it and when to use it, so the team can develop a clear understanding of who they are. It's something all teams, rash of trades or not, must do.

With most, if not all the parts in place, there's plenty of time to get it done. He should begin by riding herd on the thuggery. It's supposed to be a deterrent, not a mode of attack. The toughness should be a personality trait, not its defining characteristic.

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