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Penguins improve dismal away record as Aubin shines

Sunday, February 20, 2000
By Dave Molinari, Post-Gazette Sports Writer

SUNRISE, Fla. -- If Herb Brooks studies the videotape of this game, he will not see a flawless performance by the Penguins.

He will see lapses in coverage. He will see opportunities lost. He will see mistakes sure to make him wince.

But Brooks, the Penguins coach, also will see his players elevate their game the way they rarely have on the road this season. The way they'll have to if they intend to hang around the playoffs for a while. Or even to qualify for them.

The Penguins' 2-1 victory against Florida at the National Car Rental Center last night featured the kind of resolve and resilience they rarely have shown outside Mellon Arena this season. The Penguins are just 8-18-1 away from home, and they've come by that dismal record honestly. What made this victory particularly impressive is that Florida has been one of the best home teams in the conference. They are 21-6-2 at the National Car Rental Center, in part because conditions in this part of the planet aren't the kind usually associated with hockey.

Except, perhaps, when it's played somewhere near the equator.

"It's tough to play here, because the ice is so bad and it's very, very warm," said Penguins center Martin Straka, who scored thewinning goal. "It's tough, especially the first 20 minutes. When you get going, you feel fine. But the first 20 minutes, I thought I was going to have a heart attack or something."

The victory raised the Penguins' record to 26-26-6 -- they are back to the fabled .500 mark -- and solidified their hold on seventh place in the Eastern Conference playoff race. The Penguins are four points behind sixth-place Ottawa, three in front of the eighth-place New York Rangers. The Penguins' power play, which has betrayed them so many times this season, failed them again when it failed to convert on a five-on-three during the second period, but their penalty-killers snuffed all five chances Florida got with the extra man.

"That was a real big thing, when you shut down that power play, and the talent they have," Brooks said. "Our penalty-killing was excellent."

The Penguins kept Pavel Bure, Florida's brilliant right winger, off the scoresheet, and the Panthers did likewise to Penguins right winger Jaromir Jagr. That Bure, who has a league-high 41 goals, and Jagr, who leads the NHL with 85 points, would both be shut out was something that hadn't been widely predicted before the game.

"It is a surprise, when you look at the talent of those two guys," Brooks said.

The good news for the Penguins is that Jagr, who was playing with a charley horse, did not appear hobbled by the injury and said after the game that it was not particularly sore.

The Penguins had entered the game intent on containing Bure by focusing their defensive attention on his center, Viktor Kozlov, whenever that line was on the ice.

The logic behind that strategy was to keep the puck off Bure's stick, rather than trying to shut him down once he had it.

"To keep the puck away from [Bure] is more important, in my estimation, than checking him when he has the puck," Brooks said before the game. "Kozlov is a real key cog. He's their catalyst, I think."

Simply put, Brooks said, the idea was to "get out the fire extinguisher before you need a fire hose."

The Penguins, though, abandoned that approach early in the first period, switching to a more conventional defensive tact.

"We had to discard that right away," Brooks said. "Our defensive forward was too tight. Kozlov is big and strong, and he was blowing by them."

Any defense would look good when it is backed up by the kind of goaltending Jean-Sebastien Aubin provided, as he turned in 21 saves.

"[Aubin] played unbelievable," Straka said. "Made some great saves."

Aubin praised the defensive work of his teammates, and justifiably so. The Penguins prevented Florida's offense from ever getting untracked for an extended period.

"I think we outplayed them the whole game," Aubin said.

Florida got its only goal at 3:41 of the opening period, when defenseman Jaroslav Spacek scored from the top of the left circle.

"That was so close [to hitting Penguins defenseman Ian Moran] that I lost it for a second," Aubin said. "That's why it went in."

Deflating as falling behind early could have been, the Penguins didn't let up, and Aleksey Morozov pulled them even at 8:11.

Morozov, a right winger being used on the left side with Alexei Kovalev and German Titov, took a feed from Kovalev before throwing a high shot past Florida goalie Mike Vernon from inside the left circle for his ninth of the season

The Penguins had a chance to move in front when they were awarded a five-on-three power play at 12:46 of the second, but Vernon stopped all four shots they generated.

That penalty-kill gave the crowd its first real reason to cheer since Spacek's goal and provided a spark the Panthers had been missing for most of the game.
"Next time we get a five-on-three, we'll decline the damn thing," Brooks said.

Straka short-circuited momentum 29 seconds into the third period, however, when he tipped a Moran shot past Vernon for the decisive goal. Straka had his back to the Florida net but still was able to deflect Moran's shot between his own legs and into the net for his 15th of the season. "I just tried to be in front of the net," Straka said. "And I got a good tip on it."

And then the Penguins turned the game over to Aubin, who got a piece of everything Florida sent at him the rest of the way. He made a particularly dazzling glove stop on a Peter Worrell deflection at 8:41, then robbed Ray Sheppard from the slot with about nine minutes to go in regulation.

"[Aubin] came through with the big save when he had to," Brooks said.

His teammates came through when it counted most, too. Which is why, for just the eighth time this season, they had two points, not a pile of second-guesses and misgivings, to show for their work on the road.
"That was a solid game," Straka said. "A solid win."

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