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NO MARIO? NO PROBLEM FOR PITTSBURGH
PENS DEFEAT SABRES, 4-1, EVEN WITHOUT LEMIEUX

It's not that the Buffalo Sabres just didn't have it in them on Friday night.

Maybe they just don't have it in them at all. They're trying, but they're still not winning.

For the second straight game the Sabres couldn't capitalize on being taken for granted.

The Pittsburgh Penguins felt they could get by without NHL leading scorer Mario Lemieux and potent winger Martin Straka, and they were right. They easily beat the Sabres, 4-1, in front of 15,733 HSBC Arena fans.

"We got two goals over two games at home," Sabres winger Vaclav Varada said. "That's not good."

The Tampa Bay Lightning were in Buffalo on Wednesday and, despite having spent three off-days in Atlantic City, N.J., sat star goalie Nikolai Khabibulin. The Sabres managed only one goal on backup Kevin Hodson, who hasn't won a game in three years.

"We feel bad for the fans that they've got to go through it with us," Varada said.

Pittsburgh goalie Johan Hedberg faced 44 Buffalo shots, but captain Stu Barnes was the only one to beat him.

"We make every goalie look like an All-Star," Sabres coach Lindy Ruff said. "Hodson's a pretty good goaltender in the league after stopping by here."

It doesn't bode well for the Sabres that they probably will face the NHL's hottest goalie tonight. They will visit Ed Belfour and the Toronto Maple Leafs in the Air Canada Centre (7 p.m., Empire & Ch. 5, Radio 107.7 FM).

The Sabres didn't just throw pucks at Hedberg. They worked hard to create numerous scoring chances. Ruff estimated his players had 20 solid opportunities and claimed they could have had 30 had they shot more.

Their inability to finish has been apparent for some time. But Ruff hadn't been as publicly critical of his top skill players as he was after the game.

"Our key players -- you can throw Miro (Satan) in there, Stu, Grats (Chris Gratton), Timmy (Connolly) -- if they don't finish we have no chance of winning," Ruff said.

"When you look at facing a team that doesn't have Khabibulin and you don't win and a team that doesn't have Straka and Lemieux in the lineup and you don't win, it's frustrating.

"It's not the work ethic and the skating and the hitting. It's the finish. It's just not there."

Despite honest efforts on most nights, the Sabres have won only once in their last 16 games, going 1-11-3-1.

"It's a tough time," Varada said. "We're having a tough time scoring. A big goal would help us, but it seems every time we create something we get scored on right after."

Sabres goalie Martin Biron's career record against the Penguins dropped to 1-9-1. He made 19 saves.

The Penguins scored twice on power plays, once at even strength and again while short-handed into an empty net.

Right wing Alexei Kovalev picked up Lemieux's slack with two goals and an assist.

"There's so many guys in the league who can shoot the puck hard and quick and wherever they want," Biron said. "But Kovalev, the way he shoots it, it's going to go right through you. He knows how to let it go. He's got a bomb. He's a great goal scorer."

The Penguins have the league's best power play, converting on 32.7 percent of their chances. The Los Angeles Kings had the best unit last season at 20.7 percent.

Pittsburgh's power play at first seemed lost without Lemieux. That changed without notice in the second period.

Defenseman James Patrick went to the penalty box for tripping at 8:41, putting the Sabres down two skaters for 17 seconds.

But the Penguins didn't need nearly that long. They scored four seconds after winning the ensuing faceoff. Kovalev beat Biron stickside with a one-timer from above the right circle.

"There's no defending the one-timer if (the faceoff) goes back and you slide it across," Ruff said. "It's either a save or it has to hit our defenseman."

Twenty-seven seconds later, center Jan Hrdina redirected Kovalev's slap shot from the point to give the Penguins a sudden 2-0 lead.

"Hrdina was standing to the side, so I get to see the shot all the way, and it's going to hit me right in the Sabres logo," Biron said. "But he gets a stick on it and it goes right up to the shelf."

Kovalev notched his second goal 8:08 into the third period. He was left alone for the entry pass and skated across the blue line without incident, discharging his shot from the top of the left circle over Biron's left shoulder.

Barnes ended Hedberg's shutout bid with 10:31 left. Barnes accepted a pass from Varada and got off a tough shot from the slot with Penguins defenseman Janne Laukkanen in his face.

Left wing Ville Nieminen iced the game with 15.8 seconds left by scoring into the empty net.
e-mail: tgraham@buffnews.com

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