Penguins replace Steelers as focus
PITTSBURGH -- For many sports fans in Steel Town, hockey season doesn't begin until the Steelers' season ends.
So you can imagine the delight some Pittsburgh fans had Monday when they looked in the paper to see that the Penguins -- minus the National Hockey's League's former top scorer -- were at .500.
Imagine how depressed they would have felt if the Steelheads had lost in the playoffs two weeks ago when the Pens were six games below the even mark.
When you consider that the Pens dumped Jaromir Jagr's astronomical salary for prospects and that Mario Lemieux and Martin Straka have missed the vast majority of the team's first 53 games, a .500 record is nothing to sneeze at.
Too soon to tell: It's also not a reason to start planning a Stanley Cup parade.
Before losing Tuesday in Philadelphia, the Pens had won six straight games, including two in overtime.
That surge has the Pens back in the Eastern Conference playoff hunt. And that presents a dilemma for team owner Mario Lemieux and general manager Craig Patrick.
Should they keep future unrestricted free agents Robert Lang and Darius Kasparaitis for the rest of the season in hopes of making the playoffs for the 12th straight year? Or should they dump them to contenders in exchange for prospects before the March 19 trading deadline?
It's too soon to tell.
This much is certain -- when Lemieux is healthy, this team appears to be playoff caliber.
Before Wednesday's shameful home loss to the San Jose Sharks, the Pens were a respectful 10-5-2-1 with Lemieux in the lineup.
Without him, they are 12-17-4-1.
That includes Tuesday's overtime loss in Philadelphia, the franchise's personal Temple of Doom.
Minus Lemieux, Straka (broken leg) and Lang (oral surgery) and with number-one goalie Johan Hedberg taking a night off, the Pens amazingly nursed a 2-1 lead with 30 seconds to go.
Zapped: Then Alexei Kovalev failed to clear the puck out of the Pens' zone as the Flyers' Jeremy Roenick picked his pocket just inside the blue line. Seconds later, the Flyers tied the game, then won it in overtime.
Wednesday, the Pens played their final game before the NHL All-Star break, a 6-3 pounding by the Sharks. Paying customers could argue that it appeared that most of the team had a weekend at the beach more in mind than skating with the Sharks.
Hedberg, who lost for the second time to the team that traded him last March, said he wasn't emotionally caught up in playing his former team.
"It was just another game ... another bad game," Hedberg said.
Lemieux, whose return to the lineup from a hip injury, was in a snit in the locker room.
When asked if the Pens had achieved about as well as could be expected after the roster changes and injuries, the Pens owner responded, "It could always be better."
Told he seemed to be "particularly upset" about the loss, Lemieux replied, "Yep."
He soon elaborated by saying "it was just one of those nights."
Did he see it coming? "No."
Take a break: Lemieux added that he thinks "the guys need a little break. We had a pretty good run the last couple of weeks. They deserve to go to Florida, spend some time at the beach and come back ready."
The Pens are due back in the office Sunday to prepare for five games before the two-week Winter Olympics break. Four of them (Hurricanes, Canadiens, Rangers, Senators) will be played away from Mellon Arena.
The lone home date is Feb. 9 against the New Jersey Devils, the team the Pens are chasing for the final playoff seed.
That schedule certainly won't be a day at the beach.
XTom Williams is a sportswriter for The Vindicator. Write to him at email@example.com.