Sabres dull vs. Pens

Posted: Wednesday, December 27, 2000

BUFFALO, N.Y. -- Jan Hrdina had a goal and two assists as the Pittsburgh Penguins rallied for a 5-3 victory Tuesday night over the Buffalo Sabres.

Alexei Kovalev, Robert Lang, Martin Straka and Josef Beranek had a goal and assist each for Pittsburgh, which overcame a 3-1 first-period deficit. The Penguins were 0-3-3 in their last six games and won for only the second time (2-4-3) since Mario Lemieux officially announced his intention to end his 3 1/2-year retirement.

Maxim Afinogenov had a goal and two assists for the Sabres, who lost their fourth-straight home game to the Penguins.

Thrashers 5, Maple Leafs 3

ATLANTA -- Hnat Domenichelli scored twice as Atlanta jumped out to a four-goal lead in the first period before holding off Toronto.

Atlanta's 14th victory tied the Thrashers' win total of last season, their first in the NHL.

Milan Hnilicka stopped 34 shots for the Thrashers, who reached .500 for just the second time in franchise history.

Lightning 3, Hurricanes 2

TAMPA, Fla. -- Rookie scoring leader Brad Richards had a goal and an assist as Tampa Bay beat Carolina.

Richards set up Tampa Bay's first goal early in the second period and then scored his 11th of the season later in the period to give the Lightning a 3-1 lead. Richards leads NHL rookies with 30 points.

Blues 5, Blue Jackets 0

ST. LOUIS -- Rookie Brent Johnson stopped 24 shots and Pavol Demitra scored two goals and had two assists as St. Louis beat Columbus.

Scott Young also scored twice for St. Louis, which extended its unbeaten streak to 12 (11-0-1) games -- tying the team mark set in 1968-69 season.

Predators 5, Avalanche 2

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Scott Walker scored a career-high three goals and Mike Dunham made 28 saves, leading Nashville past Colorado.

The win snapped an eight-game Avalanche unbeaten streak against the Predators (5-0-3) that dated to Oct. 31, 1998, during Nashville's first month in the NHL.

Patric Kjellberg scored a goal, originally credited to Walker, and Marian Cisar added one for the Predators, who have won three of four.

Sharks 2, Kings 1

LOS ANGELES -- Alexander Korolyuk scored with 4:32 left and rookie Evgeni Nabokov made 29 saves for his league-leading 20th victory as San Jose beat Los Angeles.

Patrick Marleau scored his 17th goal, matching his total from last season, to help send the Kings to their fifth straight defeat.

Nabokov is 6-0 in his last seven games and has held opponents to fewer than three goals in 22 of his 28 starts.

Craig Johnson scored early in the third period and Steve Passmore made 30 saves for the Kings.

CREDIT:AP Photo/Kim D. Johnson

CAPTION:San Jose Sharks defenseman Shawn Heins, left, battles Los Angeles Kings' Ian Laperriere during the first period in Los Angeles Tuesday.

HEAD:Let the comeback begin -- Super Mario returns


BYLINE2:AP Sports Writer

PITTSBURGH -- The comeback the NHL never dared to dream for begins Wednesday night, and not even the man making it knows exactly what to expect.

Mario Lemieux returns to the ice after a 3 1/2-year retirement, restoring some star power to what has been a largely faceless NHL since he and Wayne Gretzky quit -- and, he hopes, some offense to the slumping Pittsburgh Penguins.

Lemieux's return would be dramatic and virtually unprecedented even if there wasn't the added element of the sport's first Hall of Fame player-turned-owner transforming himself back into a player.

But, despite the Jordanlike buzz Lemieux's return has created in hockey, and the huge number of tickets it has sold in Pittsburgh, it is difficult to predict how successful it will be.

Guy Lafleur and Gordie Howe renounced their retirements after a short time to return to the NHL, and Ted Williams and other baseball stars spent years fighting World War II and the Korean War before returning to the majors. Michael Jordan played minor league baseball for a year before leading the Chicago Bulls to three more NBA titles.

But Lemieux has been away nearly four full seasons -- a virtual career for some less-skilled players -- and is now 35, certainly not old but still not young in a sport where speed and leg strength are everything.

Lemieux's quick hands and strong stride returned quickly during seven weeks of workouts, but he still must deal with years of inactivity, a back that was balky even when he was much younger and bigger, stronger defensemen who don't care who he once was.

He also must deal with a sport that, despite his own remarks to the contrary, still has far too much clutching and grabbing to please fans more interested in offense, offense, offense.

''I have a lot of confidence to come back and play at a high level,'' said Lemieux, the only NHL player with 500 or more goals to average more than two points per game. ''I'm going to have to be patient, but I intend to get back to the top of my game.''

But just how high a level can he achieve? Can a player away from the game so long, even one as skilled as Lemieux, dare hope to dominate like he once did? Apparently, many want to know.

The Penguins expect to sell out all four games of a homestand that conveniently begins Wednesday, and they have more media credential requests for the comeback game -- about 200 -- than they usually do for an early-round playoff game.

Still, Lemieux warns he won't come back ''scoring 4-5 points a night'' and even his own teammates are trying not to get too worked up, lest they be disappointed if he is merely Lemieux the Good, not Lemieux the Great.

''It's going to be tough for him,'' Alexei Kovalev said. ''It will take some time for him to come back. The skill will be there, but the energy? It's tough to bring it back. It's going to take 3-4-5 games to get in game shape.

''Practice is one thing. He is definitely in good shape right now. But it's different when you practice and when you're playing.''

Lemieux is coming back partly because he considers the Penguins a Stanley Cup contender, but they aren't playing like it. They were 0-3-3 in the six games going into Tuesday's game and have seemed distracted and unfocused lately, almost as if they can't wait for Lemieux to return.

They didn't resemble a cup contender Saturday, losing 8-2 to the Dallas Stars in their fifth consecutive home loss. They last had such a long home losing streak in January 1984, several months before they drafted then 18-year-old Lemieux.

''I think anyone who comes back from such a period of not playing hockey, you need help from your teammates,'' said four-time NHL scoring champion Jaromir Jagr, who has slumped much of the season. ''The way we're playing right now, I don't know if we can help him much. He's going to be on his own.''

Of course, Lemieux is accustomed to that, having previously transformed what was the NHL's worst team in the 1980s into a two-time Stanley Cup champion in the 1990s.

''I think I'm very, very close, and I'm very excited about the future,'' Lemieux said.

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