Monday, May 21, 2001

Pittsburgh’s Jaromir Jagr, the reigning NHL scoring champion who may have played his last game as a Penguin on Saturday afternoon in Mellon Arena, summed up the feelings of a lot of Pittsburgh players yesterday when he met with reporters.

“I’ve never been that embarrassed in [my] hockey life,” he said, referring to the 5-0 humiliation his team absorbed from New Jersey, giving the Devils a 3-1 lead in the best-of-7 Eastern Conference finals. Game 5 is tomorrow night in Continental Airlines Arena.

“I know how I feel I’m sure it’s pretty similar,” said Pittsburgh general manager Craig Patrick.

Adding to Jagr’s frustration, the Penguins haven’t scored since early in the third period of Game 2 134 minutes, 41 seconds ago. Jagr and Mario Lemieux have combined for two points (a pair of Lemieux assists) in the series; Devils defenseman Brian Rafalski has three goals and five points by himself.

Pittsburgh’s power play is 1-for-12, or 8 percent. New Jersey’s is 4-for-14, or 28.6 percent.

“They don’t have a weakness on their team,” Lemieux said of the Devils yesterday. “From the first player to the 20th player, it’s just a great hockey club.”

Dissension has been growing between team owner Lemieux and captain Jagr, and it has become public. Yesterday Jagr made it very clear at least three times during his interview that the opinions he was offering were his, not those of Lemieux or coach Ivan Hlinka.

“Obviously, if we’re going to play the same way we played the last two games, we don’t have much of a chance,” Jagr said, not exactly a ringing endorsement of the game plan set forth by Hlinka, who also has argued publicly with his All-Star right wing.

“If we’re going to play the same way, we’re going to lose the series there’s no question about it,” Jagr said. “Whatever we do, it’s not working. Whatever they do, it’s working.”

There have been widespread reports that go beyond the rumor level some even fueled by Lemieux that Jagr will have to be traded at the end of the playoffs so the team can use his $10 million in salary to pay others. Jagr has acknowledged that a trade is a probability.

“[The Devils are] not allowing us to play at the level that we’ve been able to play at until this series,” Patrick said. “We’ve got to find a way to find that level [so] we can compete with them at the same level that they are playing at.”

Larry Robinson, the Hall of Fame defenseman who also is the New Jersey coach although he had to be talked into a head job, says he remains concerned despite such talk.

“Too many teams have been in this position and figured they were all but gone, and the next thing you know here they come,” he said. “Never count your opponent out, especially one that has a Lemieux or a Jagr… . You can’t let them back up and get back into it… . We have to come back and play strong and committed like we did in Games 3 and 4.”

Bobby Holik, the New Jersey center who usually arrives on the scene with the elegance of a swarm of angry yellow jackets, may have offered the best explanation of what is taking place in the lopsided series one that probably would be over now but for a 6 1/2-minute letdown by the Devils in Game 2.

“I don’t think it’s a matter of what they’re not doing we’re just not giving them much,” he said. “We are in charge of the game.”

That feeling is not lost on Pittsburgh players like Andrew Ference, the young defenseman.

“It’s not a good feeling when you look over to their bench and see some of their players laughing, see the coach laughing,” he said.

Until last week, the Penguins had not been shut out in a home playoff game since 1975. And the Penguins had not been shut out in back-to-back home games in their 34-year history, regular season or postseason. None of that matters to the man who authored those victories.

“We have to play with that same fear that they’ll wake up and bury us,” Devils goalie Martin Brodeur said. “What we’ll face on Tuesday is the hardest thing to do in hockey close a series down.”

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