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PENGUINS ROLL OVER RANGERS

It almost didn't seem fair: A rookie goaltender is asked to face Mario Lemieux, Jaromir Jagr and Alexei Kovalev in only his second NHL career start.

And it wasn't.

Kovalev had his third three-goal game this month during a five-point night and the Pittsburgh Penguins, enjoying the kind of wide-open game in which they thrive, beat the New York Rangers, 6-4, Friday night.

Kovalev -- traded by the Rangers in November 1998 -- twice tied the game in the first period, then completed his third hat trick since Feb. 7 during a three-goal Pittsburgh second period against rookie goaltender Vitali Yeremeyev.

Martin Straka had a goal and three assists and Lemieux, staying in the lineup despite his ongoing bout with back pain, scored for the second consecutive game. The Penguins improved to 10-3-1 in their last 14 games.

"Basically, Kovalev had a great night," Rangers coach Ron Low said. "A couple of great plays were made by their great players. When you play this team, you just can't shut down one line (the Lemieux line), you have to shut down two lines."

The Rangers didn't shut down either line. With Mike Richter out for the season with a torn knee ligament and backup Kirk McLean winless in his last eight games in Pittsburgh, Yeremeyev played only his third NHL game.

The result, and the ensuing wide-open play uncharacteristic of late in a game involving the Penguins, was almost predictable as Kovalev had his sixth career hat trick barely halfway through the game and Straka had a four-point night.

Kovalev, once criticized by former Rangers General Manager Neil Smith for not shooting enough, insisted it didn't feel any better to have a big night against his former team. Really.

"I get asked about it a lot, and I'm kind of sick of it," Kovalev said. "Neil Smith and the Rangers are in the past. . . . I said when I was traded to Pittsburgh it was a new start for me."

Kovalev, second in the league with 39 goals to Florida's Pavel Bure (40), got his 37th of the season after Straka intercepted a pass and set him up in front of the net. Kovalev's 38th came later in the first period on a power play resulting from Eric Lacroix's tripping penalty.

The Rangers also scored short-handed on the same penalty, with Straka's giveaway setting up Mark Messier's breakaway for his 19th. Kovalev scored just over a minute later.

Despite Yeremeyev's rough introduction to the Penguins, teammate Rich Pilon said, "He didn't hurt us, we hurt ourselves by giving them too much room, backing off and letting them shoot."

The Penguins were 2 for 27 on the power play in their last six games before scoring on their first two opportunities, with Lemieux getting his 22nd in 25 games to make it 3-2. Lemieux scored almost exactly as he did to win Wednesday's 3-2 overtime decision over Florida, on a one-timer from the left circle, this time off Kovalev's pass.

After Josef Beranek got his eighth for Pittsburgh and Brian Leetch scored on a Rangers power play, Kovalev restored the Penguins' two-goal lead at 12:28 of the second with his 12th goal in nine games this month. He also had hat tricks in consecutive home games against Philadelphia on Feb. 7 and New Jersey on Feb. 10.

Meanwhile, the parole of Penguins forward Billy Tibbetts won't be revoked for punching an opponent, but future aggressive behavior could send him back to jail.

The Massachusetts Board of Parole said Tibbetts was being "sanctioned," and given a formal warning for punching Atlanta Thrashers forward Darcy Hordichuk while he was sitting on his bench Jan. 27.

Caps' streak hits 11

WASHINGTON -- The longer the streak lasts, the better the Washington Capitals are playing.

Washington extended its unbeaten streak to 11 games as Jeff Halpern, Dmitri Khristich and Calle Johansson scored in a 3-1 victory over Montreal.

"We haven't let down," Washington coach Ron Wilson said. "When you have a streak like this, you don't want it to end."

Washington has won four straight and gone 9-0-2 over the 11-game stretch, the third-best unbeaten streak in team history. The Capitals have twice recorded 14-game unbeaten streaks, the best being a 13-0-1 run from Jan. 17-Feb. 18, 1983.

Halpern and linemates Ulf Dahlen and Steve Konowalchuk turned in another stellar performance as Washington controlled the game from start to finish.

Dahlen had two assists and Konowalchuk had one. Wilson started the line during the last several games, and it has been a big factor in the unbeaten streak.

The Capitals held a 32-26 advantage in shots and nearly posted their fourth shutout of the season -- Montreal's Oleg Petrov scored with 3:53 left in the game.

Wings overtake Blues

DETROIT -- The Detroit Red Wings lost Sergei Fedorov, but the St. Louis Blues were already without Chris Pronger, Al MacInnis, Pavol Demitra and Michal Handzus.

So the Red Wings moved into first place in the Central Division.

Despite losing Fedorov to a broken nose, Detroit defeated St. Louis, 4-2, to move past the Blues into first place in the Central Division and second overall in the Western Conference.

"We've been looking up at them for a long time," said Kris Draper. "They've still got two games in hand on us, but it feels good to be back at the top of the Central."

The Blues had been in first place all season, but are without four of their best players because of injuries.

"We thought we could get the win with the lineup they had," said Red Wings coach Scotty Bowman.

Detroit improved its record to 37-16-6-4 for 84 points, while St. Louis is 37-15-7-2 for 83 points. The Red Wings are 8-0-2 in their last 10 games.

"They closed the gap and they've been playing well," said St. Louis coach Joel Quenneville. "I'm not surprised that they closed the gap and made a run at us. We hadn't really hit any slumps."

Fedorov was hurt late in the first period when St. Louis defenseman Bryce Salvadore's helmet hit Fedorov in the face after Fedorov took a shot on goal. Bowman said he didn't know if Fedorov would play Sunday against Phoenix.

Around the rinks

Shane Willis scored twice, including the winning goal 3:18 into the third period, as the Hurricanes defeated the injury-riddled Devils, 3-2. The win put the Hurricanes two points ahead of Boston for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. The Devils' injured list included leading scorer Alexander Mogilny (abdomen), Scott Gomez (back), Petr Sykora (shoulder), Jason Arnott (back) and Sergei Brylin (knee). . . . Joe Nieuwendyk's goal one minute into overtime kept the Stars unbeaten in their last seven games against the Bruins with a 5-4 victory. . . . Peter Forsberg had a goal and two assists and Chris Drury scored twice as the Avalanche downed the Wild, 4-1. Rob Blake got an assist in his first game with Colorado since being acquired from the Los Angeles Kings. . . . Jocelyn Thibault made 27 saves for his sixth shutout of the season as the Blackhawks edged the Thrashers, 1-0.

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