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From near grief to relief in a flash



Published: Wed, May 9, 2001 @ 12:00 a.m.



Did someone mention Eastern Conference finals? Pittsburgh has put itself in position to do just that.

By TOM WILLIAMS

VINDICATOR SPORTS STAFF

PITTSBURGH -- With his comeback season winding down to a disappointing second-round playoff conclusion, Penguins owner Mario Lemieux, dormant for much of the past four games, showed the hockey world there's still magic left in his wand.

With 78 seconds remaining in regulation of Game 6 and the Pens trailing 2-1 against one of the world's best goalies, Lemieux produced "Mario Magic" and capitalized on a lucky bounce for an improbable tying goal Tuesday at Mellon Arena.

Eleven-and-a-half minutes into overtime, Martin Straka extended the Stanley Cup Playoffs series to a Game 7 with a point-blank shot that beat Buffalo goalie Dominik Hasek for a 3-2 victory.

Back in it: "We're back in the ball game now and we have a good opportunity to win the series," Lemieux said.

Thursday at 7:30 p.m., the Pens and Sabres will battle in Buffalo's HSBC Arena, with the winner advancing to the National Hockey League's Eastern Conference finals against the winner of tonight's New Jersey-Toronto game.

"It feels good, but we still have a job to do," said Straka of the amazing rally.

Lemieux said the Penguins' locker room was filled with relief, "especially after losing three in a row -- that was tough to take."

Lemieux was referring to the Pens' three-game losing streak after winning the first two games in Buffalo.

With goalie Johan Hedberg on the bench for an extra attacker, Lemieux struck the motherlode after Alexei Kovalev's shot ricocheted off Curtis Brown's skate high into the air.

The flying puck dropped from the sky into the Buffalo goal crease next to Lemieux. Hasek had no idea where the rubber disc was.

"I was in the right place at the right time," Lemieux said. "I saw the puck go up into the air. Dominik didn't see it. I got a couple of whacks at it. I was surprised that he didn't see the puck coming."

Kovalev, who also set up Straka's game winner, said, "When you throw the puck at the net, anything can happen.

Strategy: "They've been throwing the puck at Hedberg and getting breaks. We should have been doing the same thing and I'm glad we decided to do it now before it was too late."

Kovalev said the Pens had best learn from their late magic.

"We have to make Hasek work even harder, keep two guys in front of him all the time and take everything to the net."

Buffalo coach Lindy Ruff said, "It's a tough way to have the game tied. The puck goes off of Curtis Brown's skate and does the alley-OOP and lands right in the crease. You couldn't ask for much better [to happen for Pittsburgh]."

Lemieux's goal broke open a dam of Penguins frustration after three powerplay chances in the third period produced nothing but Hasek saves.

"This is great," Hedberg said. "It was definitely our turn to get a bounce. It's been bouncing their way for a long time, so I hope this gives us some momentum for Thursday. We're looking forward to Game 7."

The Sabres broke a 1-1 tie late in the second period when Rhett Warrener's shot deflected off Robert Lang's skates to Donald Audette, who beat Hedberg from about 6 feet out.

"There have been bounces going either way," Ruff said. "We had some bounces in this series, they had some in Game 2. Pucks have been going [in] off players and backs, but that is all part of the game."

Playing conservative: Content with the one-goal lead, the Sabres took just two shots in the third period and two more in the extra session. In 71:29 of hockey, Buffalo took just 18 shots at Hedberg.

Although the Pens had two first-period powerplay chances, the Sabres were the first to score.

As the second man-advantage was expiring and the Pens were attacking, the puck deflected off Sabres forward Steve Heinze's skate out to center ice just as Maxim Afinogenov was stepping out of the penalty box.

Afinogenov broke in and faked Hedberg to the ice before tapping the puck into the net.

Straka's hustle led to the Pens tying the game early in the second period.

Defenseman Janne Laukkanen initiated the play when he broke in for a shot that went over the net. Straka outworked Buffalo defenseman Dimitri Kalinin for the puck and shoveled it to a wide-open Kovalev about 10 feet from the Buffalo goal.

Halfway through regulation, the Pens thought they had broken the tie when Jagr powered into the goal crease and pushed the rebound past Hasek.

However, referee Bill McCreary appealed to the video replay booth where the goal was waved off because Jagr kicked the puck into the net.

williams@vindy.com




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