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INSIDE THE NHL
The season was barely two weeks old when the Penguins visited New York and beat the Rangers 1-0. Pittsburgh took just 19 shots in that game and, while protecting its lead in the third period, allowed New York only seven. Afterward the Rangers were bewildered. "That sure didn't look like the Penguins out there," said New York goalie Mike Richter.
The freewheeling blur of gold-and-black sweaters that opposing goaltenders had come to dread has been retired along with Mario Lemieux. From 1984-85 to '96-97 the Lemieux-led Penguins were a defensively disinterested, offensively awesome assemblage that made fans' ears ring from hearing the goal horns blare so often. These days they are a chippy band of neutral-zone trappers who through Sunday had allowed the fourth fewest goals in the league. Last Saturday, Tom Barrasso had 51 saves in the Penguins' 4-2 home win against the Stanley Cup champion Red Wings. That victory pushed Pittsburgh's record to 29-15-10, second-best in the Eastern Conference and, surprisingly, three points better than at the same time last season.
"We used to have so much talent that we didn't need a system," says Pittsburgh superstar right wing Jaromir Jagr. "But we lost Mario, lost Petr Nedved [a sniper who is an unsigned restricted free agent] and had to start playing a defensive style."
The metamorphosis began the day new coach Kevin Constantine and his four assistants strode, clipboards in hand, into the Penguins' training camp last September. A former high school geometry teacher who spent last season as the X's and O's assistant to Pierre Page in Calgary, Constantine set up blackboards, played videotape, supervised on-ice drills and behaved "as if it were our first hockey practice ever," says defenseman Darius Kasparaitis. "He taught us how to play offense and defense."
The lessons are elementary: The Penguins have been instructed to force teams to shoot from the outside (instead of from prime scoring position down low), eschew risky passes and work hard every shift, with and without the puck. Also, everyone must play defense.
Pittsburgh has yielded 46 fewer goals than it had at this point last year (the NHL's second-best improvement in that area), and had scored 53 fewer as well. Yet if you label the Penguins' system "defensive," Constantine gets defensive. "We play two-way hockey," he says. "We work as much on offense as we do on defense. I just want sound fundamentals and discipline."
He's getting it from everyone. Jagr was among 18 Penguins skating hard through an optional practice last Friday, 14 hours after Pittsburgh had beaten the Bruins in the second of back-to-back road games. Despite the Penguins' new style, Jagr was in his customary place among the league's top scorerstied for the NHL lead with 63 points through Sundaylargely because he is the best one-on-one player alive. "I liked it when we played a more offensive style," he says. "But I also like winning. The style we're playing is why we're winning."
Issue date: February 9, 1998
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