- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 12, 2001

Forgive Washington fans if they didn't recognize the opposing team that skated at MCI Center last night. After all, the Pittsburgh Penguins hardly resemble the offensive juggernaut that has ruined the Capitals' Stanley Cup dreams in six of the past 11 springs.

The Penguins' leading scorers have eight goals apiece. Pittsburgh has only outscored the bumbling foursome of Atlanta, Columbus, Florida and Tampa Bay. Its power play is the NHL's worst. This from a franchise which was first or second in the NHL in goals in seven of the past 11 years and never finished out of the top 10.

But with five-time scoring champion Jaromir Jagr having been traded to Washington in July, incomparable Hall of Fame center Mario Lemieux having played in just 11 games (with a lone goal) because of an ailing hip and sniper Martin Straka possibly out for the year with a broken leg, Pittsburgh is minus three of five players who produced more than 44 points last year. Right wing Alexei Kovalev who missed 13 games after knee surgery has a great shot and center Robert Lang is a fine set-up man, but they can't carry an offense alone.

So it's a wonder that the Penguins took the ice last night with a 13-11-3-2 record and a slight edge on Montreal for the Eastern Conference's eighth and final playoff spot. Of the 16 teams that were in line for postseason, Pittsburgh was the only one which had scored fewer goals (66) than it had allowed (71).

"Everybody's really proud and happy with everything that has happened to us," Lang said before last night's game against the Caps. "You never want to lose guys, but it made the rest of us realize that we each had to step up because no one else was going to."

Ivan Hlinka, who coached Pittsburgh on its surprising run to the Eastern Conference finals last May, was fired when the Penguins were outscored 17-7 in losing their first four games. Prior to last night, Pittsburgh was 13-7-3-2 and had outscored its foes 58-54 under new coach Rick Kehoe, an assistant the previous 13 seasons.

"I didn't make major adjustments," Kehoe said. "We just had to play more as a team and take care of our own end first."

Said Lang, "The change was a lot easier because we all knew Rick so well. We're not scoring as many goals as we used to, so we have to be a lot more disciplined, a lot more careful defensively. We're getting used to playing that way."

Kehoe said such youngsters as 20-year-old rookie center Kris Beech (acquired in the Jagr trade) and 21-year center Milan Kraft benefited from the extra ice time (more of which is coming for defensemen Michal Rozsival, 23, and Josef Melichar, 22, in the wake of Ian Moran's broken leg four days ago) but Lang also asserted himself as the lone gun in the arsenal when Kovalev was missing.

"I was sort of in the situation Jaromir was in before Mario came back [last December]," said Lang, who had a team-high 21 points and a plus-4 defensive rating before last night. "You don't get the same chances you get when you play with guys like Mario and Jaromir so you have to really make the chances you get count."

The Penguins haven't made many of those chances count, but they've become more responsible defensively. A big reason for that is goalie Johan Hedberg, who has proved that his leap from the obscurity of the Manitoba Moose to NHL playoff stardom last spring wasn't a fluke, posting a 2.22 goals-against average and a .922 save percentage.

"Heddy has kept us in a lot of games," Kehoe said.

And while the Penguins are anticipating Lemieux's return by the first of the year, they're not biding their time until Super Mario is back on the ice. After going 2-2-2 in their first six games without Lemieux, they were 7-1-2 in their next 10 minus No. 66.

"The timetable is up to Mario," Kehoe said of his superstar owner. "He'll be back when he's ready, but we want him to be 100 percent and be able to finish the season."

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