The Penguins (34-24-7-2 through Sunday) were on target to slightly surpass last year's 88-point total, yet Hlinka has had a rough ride. The coach of the Czech national team that won the gold medal at the 1998 Olympics, he was hired largely in deference to Jaromir Jagr, Pittsburgh's Czech superstar. It wasn't long, however, before Jagr undermined Hlinka by calling a players-only meeting and implementing a checking scheme before Hlinka approved it. Since then, Hlinka has ceded much authority to Jagr and Mario Lemieux who has ordered the Penguins into a defensive mode during several games "Ivan lets the players play," says defenseman Jeff Norton who was traded to the Shark on Monday.
Hlinka, who speaks halting English, is well liked but has drawn criticism from some Penguins for his failure to match lines and his slowness to adjust assignments during games. Because those skills are particularly essential in the playoffs the verdict on Hlinka's first-year performance is still pending.
Suhonen, meanwhile, has coaxed the Blickhawks into adopting his creative system—"He likes a lot of skating and passing," says center Michael Nylander—without resorting to the tongue-lashing many coaches use to get their players to listen. Suhonen says he believes "you can't get mad at somebody as a person" and you can't say somebody's lazy or dumb," swearing off two words mat nave poisoned mane coach-player relationships He also eschews punitive methods, and after a bad loss he tend to hold short, sometimes optional, practices. "Alpo's not going to snow anger or threaten players," says G.M. Mike Smith. "It took them a while to get used to that."
Not surprisingly, Chicago began slowly (2-7-0-1), but since then the Blackhawks had gone 26-23-7-2 through Sunday and were on pace to finish with roughly the same record as last year. For Suhonen, whose team will likely miss the postseason, this history-making season has been a clear, though not resounding, success.
Injury-Plagued Byron Dafoe
Playoff Hopes Are Hurt Too
Bruins goalie Byron Dafoe isn't a candidate for the Vezina Trophy, let alone for the league's MVP award, yet he could be a key figure in the season's stretch run. As of Sunday, Boston (28-28-6-7) trailed the Hurricanes by two points for the Eastern Conference's final playoff spot and Dafoe (14-11-5 with a solid 2.38 goals-against average) was listed as day-to-day with a strained right hamstring that had sidelined him since Feb 10 That strain was the latest in a string of leg injuries that has left both Dafoe and the Bruins wobbly.
"This is the last time I'm going to talk about Dafoe's injury," snapped Boston coach Mike Keenan last Friday. "He has to strengthen his leg more to play." Twenty-four hours later the Thrashers blasted the Bruins' backup goalies, John Grahame and Peter Skudra 7-5.
Last season, after Dafoe underwent right knee surgery and missed the final 23 games, Boston skidded to a 6-14-3-0 finish and failed to make the playoffs. This season Dafoe has missed 11 games with a left hamstring pull, 11 after his right knee flared up and 13 with his current ailment. During his absences the Burins were 12-19-1-3 "The confidence of the team is reflected in tire goaltending," says Keenan.
That's why the Bruins hope Dafoe will heal in time to bear the weight of their playoff hopes.