Super Mario saves season for Pens

Lemieux's late goal keys overtime victory over Sabres, forces series to Game 7

Posted: Wednesday, May 09, 2001

PITTSBURGH -- Mario Lemieux never seems to run out of ways to save the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Martin Straka scored in overtime after Lemieux's dramatic goal with 1:18 left in regulation kept Pittsburgh's season alive, and the Penguins beat the Buffalo Sabres 3-2 Tuesday night to force a seventh game.

''Mario did it again,'' Straka said.

The Sabres, less than 90 seconds away from reaching the Eastern Conference finals for the third time in four years, now must win a Game 7 Thursday in Buffalo to keep their own season going.

Straka also won the decisive Game 6 of the first round against Washington with an overtime goal -- the last home game Pittsburgh won before its come-from-behind victory Tuesday.

Robert Lang banged Dimitri Kalinin off the puck along the rear boards, allowing Alexei Kovalev to throw it out front to Straka, who buried it past Dominik Hasek for his third of the playoffs at 11:29 of overtime. It prevented Pittsburgh's third consecutive second-round elimination in a Game 6 home game and its second in a row after winning the first two games on the road.

''Lang forced the play and Kovvy found me and I was wide open,'' Straka said. ''I just wanted to hit the net. I didn't even think about it. In overtime, you have to keep getting the puck on the net and try to get lucky.''

This time, the Sabres didn't as they lost in overtime for the first time in these playoffs after beating Philadelphia twice in the first round and Pittsburgh in Game 5.

Donald Audette put Buffalo ahead 2-1 at 16:12 of the second period and Hasek, trying to steal a game for the first time in the series, almost made it hold up even as Pittsburgh outshot the Sabres 33-18.

But with the Penguins' season ticking away, Lemieux, who hadn't scored since the opening goal of Game 1, tied it with his 76th career playoff goal -- and, certainly, one of his most dramatic.

''We were worried, I can't say we weren't,'' forward Kevin Stevens said. ''We couldn't seem to get the puck past Hasek. But Mario found a way.''

Only 15 seconds after goalie Johan Hedberg was pulled to give Pittsburgh an extra attacker, Kovalev's shot rebounded high into the air off Curtis Brown's skate and landed near the crease.

Lemieux, at the left of the net, whacked at it once, then twice, finally sliding it by Hasek for his sixth goal of the playoffs -- extending a season that seemed to be all but over for Pittsburgh.

''Hasek didn't see it at all. I just whacked it in,'' Lemieux said.

Hasek said it all happened so fast, he never did see the puck.

''The puck went somewhere up high, nobody saw it,'' Hasek said. ''I think I made the first save, I don't even know. I just didn't know where the puck was. I was looking and waiting, all of a sudden I saw it dropping on me.''

Thursday's winner will play the Game 7 winner between New Jersey and Toronto in the conference finals.

''You need a little luck to win games, and obviously they got a little lucky. They worked hard, and here we go onto Game 7,'' the Sabres' Jason Woolley said. ''We have to feel good about going home, and we have to use that to our advantage as much as we can.''

Despite allowing the last two goals, Hasek played his best game of the series, holding off a succession of early Pittsburgh scoring chances to allow Buffalo to take a 1-0 lead on Maxim Afinogenov's goal at 9:26 of the first.

Afinogenov, off for hooking, skated out of the penalty box and directly to a puck kicked his way by Steve Heinze, who had lost his stick. Afinogenov drove in alone on a breakaway, faked to his backhand, only to stay with his forehand and beat Hedberg for his second of the playoffs.

Kovalev tied it at 5:14 of the second, taking Straka's pass from behind the net off a Janne Laukkanen shot and beating Hasek up high with a wrister as the goalie went down.

The Penguins thought they had the go-ahead goal about five minutes later as Jaromir Jagr went hard to the net on a rebound to push the puck past Hasek. However, replays showed the puck deflecting off Jagr's right skate before he could get his stick on it and the goal was waved off.

Given that reprieve, Buffalo seized the 2-1 lead as Audette's shot about a foot off the goal line sailed past Hedberg inside the far post as the goalie tried to close off the short side.

Lemieux's goal turned around what had been a tough night for the Hall of Famer, whose unexpected midseason comeback made him the first player-owner in modern pro sports history and was the NHL's story of the season. Lemieux bought the Penguins out of bankruptcy court two years ago.

Lemieux twice went crashing to the ice, delaying play each time -- the first time after being hooked by Vaclav Varada, the second after being struck in the face by Varada's stick. However, he returned quickly each time.

Until Lemieux scored, he and Jagr, who have 11 NHL scoring titles between them, had been held to one goal each in the series.

Jagr, who has won the last four scoring titles, might have played his last game in Pittsburgh with the Penguins. Jagr and his $10.5 million salary likely will be traded to allow the Penguins to re-sign some of their key free agents, including Kovalev, Straka and Lang.

Notes: Buffalo is 0-15 in playoff series it trailed 2-0. ... Buffalo is 3-for-30 on the power play, Pittsburgh is 3-of-25. ... The Sabres have never lost any of the four playoff series in which they led 3-2. ... Pittsburgh lost Game 6 in the second round at home to Philadelphia in 2000 and to Toronto in 1999, both by one goal.



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