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Penguins

Today's game critical, not crucial

| Saturday, March 9, 2002

The impact of this afternoon's game on the standings and in the Eastern Conference playoff chase is unmistakable to anyone even remotely paying attention.

But is today's Penguins-Rangers showdown really do or die•

"It's important," defenseman Andrew Ference said. "It's still two points, just like (Thursday's loss to Carolina). The only difference is we can stop them from winning. It's an important game, they're one of the teams we're chasing. But we're also chasing Washington and Montreal, too. We have a lot of do-or-die games coming up."

"There are three or four teams in the mix right now for that eighth spot, and the Rangers are one of them," center Randy Robitaille said. "It's definitely a four-point game, but I don't know if we're basing our whole season on it. Every game is big right now. The Rangers happen to be our next game so it's pretty big. But I'd rather play the teams we need to catch the rest of the games. That's the best way to do it. We're looking forward to it."

Coach Rick Kehoe considers that the only approach that makes sense the rest of the way.

"We can't look back now," Kehoe said. "We have to look ahead. That's all we can do right now."

The Rangers beat the Penguins the last time the two teams got together, the most recent a 4-3 win Feb. 10 at Madison Square Garden, on winger Matthew Barnaby's goal in the closing seconds.

"They're going to be flying high, too," Ference said. "They know the importance of making the playoffs, and they've had a rough time of it the last few years (the Rangers have come up short in four straight seasons). They want it just as bad as us. Whichever team comes out more intense and working harder is probably going to have the upper hand."

The Penguins intend to be that team.

But they're also planning on showing up at Mellon Arena on Monday night to host Columbus even if they would happen to slip up again today. Not that they're entertaining such thoughts for very long.

"You always have to believe you can make the playoffs," defenseman Darius Kasparaitis said. "(Today's) a big game. Even if we lose, we still have a lot of games left. I know we're going to win."

WOE IS MARTY

Winger Martin Straka suffered a strain of his right ankle and of the right tibia he fractured Oct. 28 in the first period of the Penguins' 3-1 loss to Carolina on Thursday night.

The injuries occurred in Straka's first game back since sustaining a broken orbital bone Feb. 27 against Los Angeles.

That night was Straka's first game back since sustaining the fractured tibia in October.

"You definitely feel for him," center Randy Robitaille said. "To break a leg is one thing, and then to come off that and take a stick to the (face) and be out a little while longer, then come back and re-hurt his leg. It's gotta be really frustrating for him. It definitely hurts our hockey club. He's a big part of our team. We'd definitely like to have him, but those things happen. Hopefully, he can recuperate and come back as soon as he can."

"Sometimes players go through things like that in a career," Kasparaitis said. "Marty has had tough luck this year. It happens in professional sports. Hopefully, Marty's going to be stronger, and he's going to be back next year or the end of this year. I don't know. But now, we have to concentrate on the players we have here. Somebody has to step up and play, not like Marty, but better than they're playing now."

Kehoe was as dumbfounded as anyone by all that Straka has had to endure.

"It's hard to explain," Kehoe said. "It's just one of those years. No matter what he does, something's always happening to him. I don't know (why)."

Pens, Mighty Ducks swap minor-league defensemen

The Penguins and Anaheim swapped minor league defensemen yesterday, with Mark Moore going to the Mighty Ducks for Bert Robertsson.

Robertsson, 27, has split this season between Milwaukee and Cincinnati of the American Hockey League, recording three assists and 47 penalty minutes in 30 games.

The Penguins assigned the 6-foot-3, 205-pound native of Sweden to their Wilkes-Barre/Scranton AHL affiliate.

Moore, 25, has played in 52 games this season for the Wheeling Nailers, the Penguins' East Coast Hockey League affiliate. The 6-2, 216-pound Moore was the Penguins' seventh-round draft pick in 1997.

ICE CHIPS

Kehoe said Johan Hedberg would start in goal today against the Rangers … The Penguins held an optional practice Friday. Forwards Milan Kraft, Kris Beech, Toby Petersen, Krzysztof Oliwa, Dan LaCouture and Eric Meloche; defensemen Mike Wilson, Ference, Hans Jonsson and Michal Rozsival; and goaltender Jean-Sebastien Aubin took part … The Penguins have 17 games remaining after today, eight at home and nine on the road (including five of their last seven) … Owner Mario Lemieux was at Southpointe and observed a portion of yesterday's workout.

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