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Penguins need Lemieux, Jagr to regain stride

| Monday, May 14, 2001

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. - Even when he is not at full strength, Mario Lemieux can have a profound effect on a hockey game.

The Buffalo Sabres' broken hearts are proof of that. The Sabres watched a leg-weary Lemieux score a miracle goal to force overtime in Game 6 of their second-round series.

But it's obvious that Lemieux's energy bursts have been sporadic since Game 2 of that series. And it seems just as obvious that the Penguins will need an energized Lemieux and a productive Jaromir Jagr if they are to survive the Eastern Conference final against the New Jersey Devils.

The owner and the captain were stifled in a 3-1 loss Saturday in Game 1. A still-sluggish Lemieux did not record a single shot, and Jagr managed just one.

Minute Men
NHL playoff leaders in total ice time:

Chris Pronger - St. Louis - 6:05.46

Rob Blake - Colorado - 5:54.44

Mario Lemieux - Penguins - 5:49.23
Only two players - St. Louis Blues defenseman Chris Pronger and Colorado Avalanche defenseman Rob Blake - have logged more playoff minutes than Lemieux. He has played for nearly six hours, including 37 minutes short-handed.

Is he out of gas•

'I think he's got plenty left,' Penguins general manager Craig Patrick said. 'I think we were a little bit drained coming into the game because of our three overtime games at the end of last series, and then the short turnaround (45 hours). But we have an extra day here, so I think everybody will bounce back as strong as we possibly can (for Game 2) Tuesday.'

After a 43-game regular season, Lemieux has played 14 consecutive pressure-cookers with the likes of Jeff Halpern, Brendan Witt, Curtis Brown, Rhett Warrener and Bobby Holik pounding on him as if he were a slab of steak.

Although his minutes were cut by about five in Game 1, to 19:52, Lemieux still leads all NHL forwards average in ice time in the playoffs at 24:57 per game. Jagr is second at 22:55. No other forward left in the playoffs averages even 22 minutes per game.

Lemieux admitted that he wore down late in the Buffalo series, but he expects his minutes to shoot back up in Game 2.

'As the series progresses, I'm sure I'm going to get back up to 25, 26 minutes, depending on the power plays, penalty kills,' Lemieux said. 'I think so far in the playoffs, I've averaged close to 25, which I've felt comfortable with.'

The two-day break should help. Kidnapping Holik wouldn't hurt, either. He spent much of the game with the blade of his stick buried in Lemieux's midsection.

One way to keep Lemieux fresher would be to cut his penalty killing time. Penguins coach Ivan Hlinka said that isn't such an easy decision.

'Sometimes, maybe you can use the other guys to kill penalties,' Hlinka said. 'But to kill the penalties is a very important part of the game.'

So is shooting the puck, and the Penguins aren't doing enough of it. They claimed to have more shots than the 15 they were credited with in Game 1, but they hardly tested Devils goalie Martin Brodeur, who looked vulnerable after allowing a soft goal to Martin Straka.

Jagr has one of the best wrist shots in the world, but it's rarely been seen lately. He says he is healthy - he didn't need a pre-game injection for his right shoulder before Game 1 - but it's hard to believe that a healthy Jagr would be so reluctant to shoot.

After finishing fourth in the league in shots this season, he has recorded just one in the past two games. He has no even-strength goals in 12 playoff games and seems more inclined to try to power his way toward the goal than to unleash his shot.

'I'm not getting chances to shoot the puck,' Jagr said. 'Of course, I would like to shoot the puck more. The chances are just not there.'

Jagr said he felt 'pretty good' in Game 1 until Holik blasted him into the boards.

'The last hit by Holik, I felt a little bit sore, but, hopefully, it's going to be OK,' he said.

Holik and the Devils' other talented and tenacious forwards - guys such as Randy McKay, John Madden, Patrik Elias, Petr Skyora - made life miserable for Lemieux and Jagr, who were split up for the second consecutive game. Hlinka didn't reveal whether that would be the case in Game 2.

In any case, the Penguins would be served well to get more pucks toward the net. Other teams have been wristing the puck at Penguins goalie Johan Hedberg in order to create havoc in front. They aren't necessarily trying to score on the first shot.

The Penguins could use a similar strategy to force the Devils' well-positioned defensemen to scramble a bit and to see if Brodeur will hold up. In Game 1, the Penguins reverted to an old habit of looking for the perfect goal.

Straka passed up a golden chance in the slot early in the second period, passing to Robert Lang, instead. Lang's shot was blocked.

'I thought Lang was going to have a better shot from there, but next game, if I get a chance like that, I have to shoot it,' Straka said.

When Lemieux first came out of retirement, he was firing pucks from all angles. It sounds as if he might renew that practice. The Devils aren't going to give up many prime chances, Lemieux said, so maybe it's time to find different ways to get the puck at the net.

'That means if you have a bad angle or a sharp angle, you've still got to take the shots and hopefully get something to go in,' Lemieux said. 'We need to throw more pucks at (Brodeur).'

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