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Game 4 is key to this series



Published: Tue, May 1, 2001 @ 12:00 a.m.



PITTSBURGH -- So much for a four-game sweep and a mini-vacation to heal some nagging injuries.

When the Pittsburgh Penguins returned home from Buffalo Saturday night with a somewhat surprising two-game lead, many observers felt a short series was in the making.

Not anymore.

Banged up and disillusioned after giving away home ice, the Sabres showed in Monday's Game 3, a 4-1 defeat of Pittsburgh, that they aren't going away anytime soon.

Not as long as Dominik Hasek patrols the net.

Early saves: In Game 3, Hasek only had to make 19 saves. But many of them came early when the Penguins threatened to jump out to a big lead.

Had the Penguins netted two goals in the first period, the Sabres would have been in big trouble. In fact, this best-of-7 series probably would have been over.

But Hasek withstood the Penguins' attack, shutting them down until midway through the second period.

Make no mistake, the Penguins still have the advantage in the series, with a home game Wednesday and another, if necessary, next Tuesday.

History is on their side because the Sabres have never won a playoff series in which they started out trailing 0-2.

"Our game-plan was to get back to playing both ends of the ice and we did that pretty well," Sabres center Stu Barnes said.

The key will be determined in Wednesday's Game 4. If Buffalo wins, it regains home-ice advantage.

The Penguins can't afford that.

"It's been such an emotional series already," said Sabres defenseman Jason Woolley, who scored the game-winning goal Monday.

"The third game had to come our way or we knew we were in a lot of trouble," Woolley said. "We mentally blocked it out and played hard."

In command: In the second period, the Sabres took control. After falling behind 1-0, Buffalo peppered Penguins goalie Johan Hedberg, out-shooting Pittsburgh 16-10 the rest of the way.

Squandered opportunities sum up the Penguins' performance in Game 3. Penguins left winger Kevin Stevens banged one shot off the goal post behind Hasek early.

Late in the first period, Alexei Kovalev hit the same post and the puck caromed across the crease, hopping over Mario Lemieux's stick. The Penguins failed to take advantage of another golden opportunity in the third period when Rhett Warrener was penalized for tripping.

Lemieux missed on a close shot and Hasek used his blocker to keep the puck out during a goalmouth scramble.

Kovalev agreed that the Penguins' failure to break the 1-1 tie with the rare third-period man-advantage was important.

"When you have a [late] power-play, it's always important to get those goals," Kovalev said. "We had some chances, but we didn't score."

His suggestion? "I think we need to shoot more often from the point."

Hedberg stopped 26 of the 29 shots he faced. "[He's] playing well," Buffalo center Doug Gilmour said of the Penguins goalie. "He made some great saves. We [finally] got some by him and obviously we needed to get some by him. In the next game, it's very, very important that we do the same thing."

Keeping the faith: Despite the disappointment of losing at home, Hedberg said, "There's no reason not to be" confident for Game 4.

"We have to shake this one off, learn what we can from it and come back on Wednesday and try to win it," Hedberg said.

It wouldn't hurt if Penguins captain Jaromir Jagr would lace up his skates and put in an appearance before the home crowd, which pays his $10 million salary.

Jagr sat out Games 2 and 3, complaining of various unspecified injuries.

His team can't afford to have him miss any more action.

XTom Williams covers the NHL for The Vindicator.




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