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Hockey

Repeat history

Jagr-less Penguins go up 2-1 on top-seeded Devils

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Posted: Sunday April 25, 1999 07:07 PM

  Hat trick: Martin Straka, raising his arms in celebration after his third goal, is congratulated by Titov. AP

PITTSBURGH (AP) -- History seems to be repeating itself -- the Pittsburgh Penguins are winning without hockey's best player, and the New Jersey Devils are losing a playoff series they supposedly couldn't lose.

With an injured Jaromir Jagr still out, the Penguins scored twice in the opening 40 seconds of the third period and got three goals from Martin Straka to win 4-2 Sunday and grab the lead in the Eastern Conference quarterfinals.

Straka and Alexei Kovalev scored 27 seconds apart to overcome a 2-1 deficit as the eighth-seeded Penguins rallied for a victory just as unlikely as Saturday's Jagr-less 4-1 decision in the Meadowlands.

"It's not about who is playing, it's about how hard you're playing," said Kovalev, who is centering the top line in Jagr's absence. "When Jaromir Jagr is in the lineup, we're a better team. But that doesn't mean we can't win [without him]."

Straka also scored in the first period as the underdog Penguins took a 1-0 lead for the third straight game. Straka also scored into an empty net with 17 seconds remaining for his first career playoff hat trick.

"We're proving that no one player is more important than the team," forward Rob Brown said of the Penguins, who haven't won a first-round series since 1996.

The top-seeded Devils are proving they've haven't erased their playoff meltdowns of 1998 and 1997 from their memory bank.

They now find themselves down 2-1 in a series that increasingly resembles their stunning first-round elimination by No. 8 Ottawa last year. In 1997, the No. 1-seeded Devils were taken out by the Rangers in the second round.

"But it's not the same feeling as last year," Devils defenseman Brad Bombardir said. "We feel much better about ourselves than we did in that series."

The Penguins also seem to be lifting a chapter from their own playoff history by replicating the steely determination that allowed them to upset the No. 1-seeded Rangers without an injured Mario Lemieux in 1992.

"We're all trying to make up for him [Jagr] because one player can't make up for him," defenseman Kevin Hatcher said. "It's a big lift to have arguably the best player in the world out and beat a solid team two games in a row."

Jagr's status for Game 4 Tuesday is uncertain -- the NHL scoring champion didn't even try to skate during warmups -- but the urgency created by his absence actually may be benefiting the Penguins.

Looking nothing like the team that won only twice in its last 12 regular-season games, the Penguins clearly frustrated the Devils by using their forwards like defensemen to slow New Jersey's up-ice rushes, create turnovers in the neutral zone and eliminate odd-man opportunities.

Still, the Devils had their chances -- they once led 22-7 in shots and finished with a 33-22 edge -- and they used a two-man advantage in the second period to take a 2-1 lead on Jason Arnott's power-play goal at 15:53.

But that 40-second stretch that saw a 2-1 Devils lead turn into a 3-2 deficit potentially might have wrecked their season if they go on to lose the series.

"We were all pretty flabbergasted that happened," defenseman Ken Daneyko said. "Shocked? Stunned? Yes. We started [the third Period] terribly flat and they came out flying."

The longer the Penguins hung around, the more confidence they built, and they got the less-than-sellout crowd of 15,944 back into the game by tying it only 13 seconds into the final period on Straka's second goal.

German Titov's shot from the right circle rebounded directly to Straka at the left of the net, and he stuffed it by Martin Brodeur almost before the goaltender had regained his game legs from the between-periods break.

Nearly as quickly as the Penguins tied it, they took the lead.

After the Penguins again won the faceoff, Kovalev accelerated past defenseman Scott Stevens and, skating past the goal line, directed a shot by Brodeur inside the far post.

"I don't think it's acceptable for our hockey team to have 40 seconds like that," Devils center Bobby Holik said. "When you play as well as we did, it's just a lack of concentration. We have to be very hard on ourselves."

Tom Barrasso, who stopped 31 shots, turned away several good scoring chances after that, but the Devils' biggest weapon during the regular season -- their ability to win on the road -- somehow eluded them.

"Anytime you lose Jaromir Jagr, you can't play as well as you can play, but Tom Barrasso has been the biggest piece of the puzzle," Penguins defenseman Matthew Barnaby said.

The Devils set an NHL regular-season record by going 28-10-3 away from home, but that road magic eluded them in their seventh consecutive road playoff loss.

Sergei Brylin also scored for the Devils on the power play at 12:57 of the first, making it 1-1. But a number of lineup changes by coach Robbie Ftorek, who benched center Sergei Nemchinov, forward Dave Andreychuk and defenseman Sheldon Souray, clearly did not have the desired effect.

 
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