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Trade talk secondary for now



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



PITTSBURGH -- If Tuesday's miracle finish in Game 6 proves to be Jaromir Jagr's final home game at Mellon Arena, at least the fans exited with smiles and a warm memory.

A loss might not have created such a pretty sight.

Nothing is certain and it's quite possible the Pens will hang on to the National Hockey League's best scorer. But few doubt he will be trade bait when the Stanley Cup Playoffs end.

If Jagr is traded to a richer club (Dallas, St. Louis, Philadelphia and the New York Rangers come immediately to mind), his $10 million salary could be used to retain such restricted free agents as defenseman Darius Kasparaitus and forwards Robert Lang, Martin Straka and Alexei Kovalev.

Doesn't matter: Today, trade talk doesn't matter. Nobody cares what moves await in the off-season because area hockey fans are too busy celebrating an amazing 3-2 win.

Mario Lemieux's shocking doorstep goal with 78 ticks remaining in regulation, plus Straka's overtime goal, has the Pens and Buffalo Sabres tied in their best-of-seven series at three games apiece.

With his team's backs to the wall, Straka said the strategy for beating Buffalo goalie Dominik Hasek was simple. "Let's go to the net, try and shoot on him more," Straka said.

It worked. The Pens outshot Buffalo, 33-18.

Of course, it took a magical moment to keep the season alive for at least another 60 minutes when the Pens were desperately facing elimination.

With the Pens trailing 2-1, goalie Johan Hedberg was yanked with 1:33 to go in regulation in an effort to generate a game-tying goal against the Sabres' Superman.

The ploy worked as Lemieux whacked the puck in after the Buffalo goalie lost sight of it after it deflected off a teammate's skate.

That set up Straka's heroics in the extra session.

Thursday's Game 7 will be played at Buffalo's HSBC Arena, where the Pens won Games 1 and 2.

Anything is possible. The home teams are 2-4 in this series. And the Sabres have never won a series in which they trailed 0-2.

About breaks: "Right now, I think it's going to be about lucky breaks and who is going to be more patient," said Kovalev, who scored one goal Tuesday and set up the other two.

"We had been dominating all game. A lot of our players have been in the league long enough to know that you have to play all the way to the end.

"Anything can happen in this game and we had to keep putting pressure on."

If nothing else, the Pens have gone one game further than last season when they blew a 2-0 series lead against the Philadelphia Flyers by losing the next four games for a second-round exit.

Considering that they are using a rookie goalie, Hedberg, who was stuck in the minor leagues until March 12, forcing Game 7 is an accomplishment.

And then there is Coach Ivan Hlinka, who also might have made his final appearance in a Mellon Arena game.

When the Pens hired the coach of the 1998 gold-medal-winning Czech team, most thought it was a favor to fellow countryman Jagr.

The two get along not well, to say the least.

Lemieux's return to the ice after a three-and-a-half year retirement also wasn't good news for Hlinka.

Dilemma: Hlinka prefers a close-checking style, but he has a team loaded with sharpshooters.

"It's only one win, but of course, we are happy that we are still alive," Pens defenseman Janne Laukkanen said.

One more victory means so much more because the further the Pens go, the better the chances the team stays intact.

Who is facing the most pressure? Good question, but the Sabres get the nod. If the home team struggles, the paying customers will generate heat.

If Hedberg fails, he's a rookie. If Hasek fails, the Sabres will have another non-championship series to remember.

XTom Williams covers the National Hockey League for The Vindicator. Write to him at williams@vindy.com.




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