- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 15, 2001

It's only Game 2 of the best-of-7 Eastern Conference championship series, but if the Pittsburgh Penguins hope to reach their first Stanley Cup finals since 1992, they'll need to make a few adjustments.

The display the New Jersey Devils put on in their 3-1 series-opening win Saturday night let Pittsburgh know that the defending champions have no intention of giving up the Stanley Cup any time soon. Judging by the Devils' play in Game 1, it can be safely assumed that if the Penguins don't win tonight in Continental Airlines Arena, the series is over but for the formality of playing the required minimum number of games.

A New Jersey victory tonight would force Mario Lemieux, Jaromir Jagr and the boys to win four of the last five games, including at least once in New Jersey, in order to deny the Devils the privilege of defending their championship.

And that isn't going to happen. Here's why.

• The fatigue factor. It was considered the reason for Pittsburgh's inability to compete equally Saturday night. The players were tired after a tough series against Buffalo, however both teams have played the same number of playoff games 14. New Jersey had an equally tough seven-game series against Toronto and also fought back from a 3-2 deficit.

A better reason for the Penguins' fatigue might be in coaching and personnel. The Devils' Larry Robinson has been rolling four lines and keeping players fresh. No Devil forward is averaging as much as 18:30 a game. Things are different in Pittsburgh. Coach Ivan Hlinka has elected to use three lines for the most part, sometimes only two, resulting in five forwards averaging more than 20 1/2 minutes a game (Mario Lemieux is at 25). That much ice time quickly tires players and it takes more than one extra off day to recharge the batteries.

• The injury factor. Tonight the Devils are scheduled to get back their only two injured players, Sergei Brylin and their best offensive defenseman, Scott Niedermayer. New Jersey battled back against Toronto and took a 1-0 lead over the Penguins without those individuals; it will be that much tougher for Pittsburgh with New Jersey at full strength.

Nobody is saying what is wrong with Jagr, Pittsburgh's captain, if anything. He missed two games in the Buffalo series with what was laughingly said to be a charley horse, but turned out to be a bum shoulder. This much is true: the reigning NHL scoring champion has only two goals in 12 games and only one since April 18, when he scored against Washington. Lemieux, the owner who has been critical of his captain, is not doing much better. He has only two goals since polishing off the Caps on April 23 and he's not hurt, only tired.

• The hitting factor. There is not a man on the New Jersey roster who doesn't thoroughly enjoy initiating body contact and is willing to take a hit in return, all part of the game. The same is not true for the Penguins. Pittsburgh enjoys handing out punishment but views any return as a personal vendetta that should result in swift disciplinary measures from the NHL.

On Saturday, New Jersey had 33 "official" hits to the Penguins' 20. But the Penguins became frustrated when the checking continued and took a few dumb penalties; Lemieux even reached the point where he fired a puck at checker John Madden after a stoppage in play. Had Lemieux's aim been better (he was also shotless in the game) and he connected with Madden, the people in New Jersey instantly would have forgotten Tie Domi.

The hitting will continue and not because New Jersey is playing Pittsburgh, but because that is the way New Jersey plays the game. The Devils make any opponent pay a physical price, win, lose or tie.

Need more? The Devils' top line Jason Arnott centering Patrik Elias and Petr Sykora had a slow start, but appears to be back on track and dominating the way it did in the Finals last season. This is not good news for any opponent, St. Louis and Colorado included… . New Jersey has gone three straight games without allowing an even-strength goal, a pretty significant stat this deep into the playoffs. On the other hand, Pittsburgh on Saturday night went 40 minutes two-thirds of the game with just five shots on goal… . Phenom goalie Johan Hedberg at one point appeared to be handcuffed when he tried to deal with a routine 30-foot shot that zipped past his left ear. It could be the rookie goalie's glass slipper has finally shattered.

Or it could be that the Penguins will roar out rested and refreshed and pound the stuffing out of the Devils to even the series. Saturday night was "just one game," Lemieux reminded one and all.


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