Straka's Three Cools Off Devils
By Alan Robinson
With Jagr again out with a groin injury, the Penguins relied on the intensity and emotion they lacked late in the season and Martin Straka's three goals to win 4-2 Sunday and grab the lead in the Eastern Conference quarterfinals.
Straka and Alexei Kovalev scored 27 seconds apart in the opening minute of the third period to steer the eighth-seeded Penguins to a victory just as unlikely as Saturday's Jagr-less 4-1 decision in the Meadowlands.
Straka also scored in the first period as the underdog Penguins took a 1-0 lead for the third straight game, then beat Rob Niedermayer down the ice to score into an empty net with 17 seconds remaining.
Could history be repeating itself?
The top-seeded Devils now find themselves down 2-1 in a series that increasingly resembles their stunning first-round elimination by Ottawa last year. In 1997, the No. 1-seeded Devils were taken out by the Rangers in the second round.
The Penguins also seem to be lifting a chapter from their own playoff history by replicating the steely determination that allowed them to upset the No. 1-seeded Rangers without an injured Mario Lemieux in 1992.
Jagr's status for Game 4 Tuesday is uncertain the NHL scoring champion didn't even try to skate during warmups but the urgency created by his absence actually may be benefiting the Penguins.
Looking nothing like the team that won only twice in its last 12 regular-season games, the Penguins clearly frustrated the Devils by using their forwards like defensemen to slow New Jersey's up-ice rushes, create turnovers in the neutral zone and eliminate odd-man opportunities.
The Devils still had their chances they once led 22-7 in shots and finished with a 33-22 edge and they used a two-man advantage in the second period to take a 2-1 lead on Jason Arnott's power-play goal at 15:53.
But the longer the Penguins hung around, the more confidence they built, and they got the less-than-sellout crowd of 15,944 back into the game by tying it only 13 seconds into the final period on Straka's second goal.
German Titov's shot from the right circle rebounded directly to Straka at the left of the net, and he stuffed it by Martin Brodeur almost before the goaltender had regained his game legs from the between-periods break.
Nearly as quickly as the Penguins tied it, they took the lead.
After the Penguins again won the faceoff, Kovalev accelerated past defenseman Scott Stevens and, skating past the goal line, directed a shot by Brodeur inside the far post with just 40 seconds gone.
Tom Barrasso, who stopped 31 of 33 shots, turned away several good scoring chances after that, but the Devils' biggest weapon during the regular season their ability to win on the road somehow eluded them again.
The Devils set an NHL regular-season record by going 28-10-3 away from home, but that road magic eluded them in their seventh consecutive road playoff loss dating to that Rangers' series in 1997.
Sergei Brylin also scored for the Devils on the power play at 12:57 of the first, making it 1-1. But a succession of lineup changes by coach Robbie Ftorek, who benched center Sergei Nemchinov, forward Dave Andreychuk and defenseman Sheldon Souray, clearly did not have the desired effect.
© Copyright 1999 The Associated Press