Inside The NHL

February 09, 1998

DEFENSE FIRST

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 scorers--tied
for the NHL lead with 63 points through Sunday--largely 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."

BRINGING THEM TO THEIR KNEES
Foul Play

Though he had spent nearly 43 hours in the penalty box during
his 14-year career, hard-nosed right wing Rick Tocchet of the
Coyotes had never been considered a dirty player. But what are
we to think now?

On Jan. 28, in his second game back from a two-game suspension
for a knee-on-knee hit on Oilers forward Ryan Smyth (out up to
six weeks with ligament damage), Tocchet drove his right knee
into the left knee of Red Wings captain Steve Yzerman.

The NHL banned Tocchet five games for his hit on Yzerman, who at
week's end was day-to-day with a sprain. Tocchet should have
been suspended longer. Knee-on-knee hits are among the most
perilous in hockey, and his claim that the incident was
accidental rings hollow. A month before taking runs at Smyth and
Yzerman, Tocchet had kneed Flames All-Star forward Theo Fleury
in the knee without causing injury. As Wings coach Scotty Bowman
says, "A player who sticks out his knee and says he didn't mean
it is like a guy who shoots someone and says he doesn't mean it."

The NHL can't allow these tactics to endanger any player, let
alone its stars. Most knee-on-knee victims are swift skaters
caught in a vulnerable position by slow defenders desperately
trying to impede them. In December former Oilers defenseman
Bryan Marchment, now with the Lightning, put knee-on-knee hits
on Stars forwards Mike Modano and Greg Adams, sidelining both
for more than a month. Marchment got a ridiculously soft
three-game ban for the Modano hit and no suspension for what he
did to Adams.

Tocchet is not the conscienceless thug that Marchment is. But as
a proud, feisty 33-year-old who is compensating for lost speed
by hitting below the belt, he's just as dangerous. Either
Tocchet must show more respect for his peers, or the NHL must
take stronger action against him.

THE $8.5 MILLION QUESTION
G.M. Poll

It's Game 7 of the Stanley Cup finals, and you're choosing up
sides. Who is the first player you'd pick: Mighty Ducks left
wing Paul Kariya or Flyers center Eric Lindros? We posed the
question to the NHL's 26 general managers, and of the 18 who
committed to one of those players, nine chose the 24-year-old
Lindros and nine picked the 23-year-old Kariya, both of whom
will make $8.5 million next season.

Those who wanted the 6'4", 235-pound Lindros cited his
"meanness," his "brute strength" and his "ability to intimidate
and wear down opponents" in a game full of clutching and
grabbing. Supporters of the 5'11", 175-pound Kariya loved his
"ability to score a game-breaking goal," his "great speed" and
his superior defensive ability.

Two general managers selected the Avalanche's all-around center
Peter Forsberg, partly because he has already won a Stanley Cup,
something neither Lindros nor Kariya have done. Another panelist
split his vote: "Playing at home, I'd take Kariya; I'd have the
last line change and I could put him out against players who
couldn't handle his speed," he said. "On the road I'd take
Lindros; you could force the other team to put checkers out
against him and keep their top players on the bench."

Five general managers refused to make a selection. "I'm not
going to answer," said one, unaware of the impending dead heat,
"because whoever wins the poll will use it as leverage to get
more money."

COLOR PHOTO: JOHN BIEVER NEW STRATEGY A commitment to defense has kept Barrasso and the Penguins on top of their game. [Tom Barrasso, Darius Kasparaitis and others in game] COLOR PHOTO: DAVID E. KLUTHO BIGGER IS BETTER Lindros is valued because of his brute strength. [Eric Lindros in game] TWO COLOR PHOTOS: JIM MCISAAC/B. BENNETT STUDIOS (2) [New York Rangers team logo; Boston Bruins team logo]

BUST AND BARGAIN

New York Rangers
1997-98 payroll: $44.2 million

League's highest-paid isn't providing much bang for the buck. At
week's end the Rangers were 16-22-15 and 10th in the Eastern
Conference.

Boston Bruins
1997-98 payroll: $19 million

The bottom-line Bruins--only three teams are spending less on
salaries--were paying big dividends at 23-20-10, sixth in the
East.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)