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Fat Lady waiting in the wings



Published: Mon, May 21, 2001 @ 12:00 a.m.



PITTSBURGH -- Somewhere between here and East Rutherford, N.J., a slender-challenged female is warming up her vocal pipes to sing the aria that will bring down the curtain on the Pittsburgh Penguins' soap opera season of 2000-01.

All things considered, it's been a thrilling ride -- who would have believed a year ago that we'd see Mario Lemieux again on ice?

But the final two losses at Mellon Arena -- a pair of shutouts by Devils goalie Martin Brodeur -- will leave a sour taste in many mouths.

What's that? The NHL's Eastern Conference Final series isn't over? New Jersey only has a 3-1 lead? The Penguins are still alive?

Well, true, it's not over. The Fat Lady isn't singing. Yet.

Improbable: The Penguins could become only the 17th team in Stanley Cup playoff history to rebound from a 3-1 series deficit. (They've done it twice, but the opponents were the 1992 and 1995 Washington Capitals, not the defending Stanley Cup champions.)

The Minnesota Twins could win the World Series this year.

And Jim Traficant could be honored as the Mahoning County Bar Association's "Lawyer of the Year" in 2002.

Don't think it will happen, though.

When the series was tied 1-1, the Penguins possessed home-ice advantage and were poised to waltz to their first Stanley Cup Finals in nine years.

The Devils throttled that dream by shutting down the Penguins' high-octane offensive attack, humiliating them by the scores of 3-0 and 5-0.

Devils captain Scott Stevens said his club "is hungrier" and seems to want the shot at the Cup a lot more.

He's right. The Devils have more at stake. If they win their third title in seven seasons, the Devils would be acknowledged as the best NHL team since the Edmonton Oilers and New York Islanders each won four Stanley Cups in the 1980s.

The Penguins? Moping describes the locker room.

The Penguins are stumbling for words to explain their sudden offensive ineptness. In the two games here, Brodeur had to face just one shot in every three minutes played. That's not the kind of play championships are built upon.

Lemieux ended his retirement because he believed his club was one impact player away from competing for the Stanley Cup.

Five months after his return, Lemieux now realizes that the days when scoring stars dominated the postseason are gone.

Just as good pitching will beat good hitting in baseball and a swarming defense can lead an offensively-inept team (i.e. Baltimore Ravens) to a Super Bowl victory, defense rules in spring ice hockey. The days when Guy LaFleur, Bryan Trottier, Mike Bossy, Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier and Lemieux could carry their teams on their backs through the playoffs are over.

In the past: Mind you, Lemieux is not the scorer he was eight years ago when he missed six weeks of the season in a battle with cancer and still won the NHL scoring title.

Then again, nobody else is.

But when a system allows second-year defenseman Brian Rafalski to score three goals and assist on two others in two road games, who needs high-priced offensive superstars?

The Devils are doing it with a brilliant scheme that clogs the neutral zone and prevents the Penguin puckhandlers from skating into scoring opportunities.

"They just keep going back and back and back, and by the time you are in their zone, you've got to dump it in still," said Lemieux trying to explain his team's frustrations.

"Every time you come through the middle, there are four guys in the middle. It's a great system," Lemieux said. "Hopefully, we can get a system like that one day here."

The owner of the Pittsburgh Penguins hoping for a defensive-oriented system?

Sacre bleu!

Maybe the aria should be Bob Dylan's "The times, they are a changin.' "

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




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