Despite loss of Lemieux, Penguins aren't slipping 17-point lead is largest in league

February 04, 1993|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,Staff Writer

Here's the All-Star break, and, while Washington's defenseman Al Iafrate and forward Peter Bondra may be about to prove themselves the fastest and/or most powerful shooters in the National Hockey League at the All-Star Skills Competition tomorrow in Montreal, the Pittsburgh Penguins are taking a much-deserved siesta.

The Penguins are so far out in front in the Patrick Division, they have, as yet, barely felt the absence of Mario Lemieux. But as right wing Joe Mullen said Sunday evening when the Penguins began their weeklong all-star break, "We need time to rest and get guys healthy."

Pittsburgh is 34-14-5. It's nearest Patrick Division rival, the Washington Capitals, are 25-22-6. That's a 17-point lead, more than double the lead Chicago has on Detroit in the Norris Division and more than three times the leads Vancouver has on Calgary in the Smythe and Montreal has on Quebec in the Adams.

"We never expected this in our division," Penguins left wing Kevin Stevens said. "We expected to be in first place, but not by 17 points. But we'll take it. We've played consistently. Everybody is playing hard, and it's been a good team effort."

Since Lemieux was found to have Hodgkin's disease, the Penguins have gone 6-6-1. And they've done it with No. 1 goalie Tom Barrasso sidelined with chickenpox.

"It's been like this for two weeks now," said center Dave Tippett, noting the absences. "Mario being out kind of changed our game plan a little. We're not winning by big scores any more. Sometimes they're 2-1."

The Penguins started better than they have in at least two seasons. But defenseman Larry Murphy says Pittsburgh has to keep it up when the season resumes next week. "We realize it's how you finish that counts the most," Murphy said. "We're comfortably in first place, but if we don't finish strong, we're not going to do well in the playoffs."

Into the future

Network television is in the NHL's future, says the league's new commissioner Gary Bettman. "I view it as a way to reach more fans," Bettman said this week. "Our buildings are pretty much full, and now our goal is to expand our fan base. Network television can do that."

The commissioner, who formally took over Monday, acknowledges hockey doesn't translate as well on TV as basketball does, but said he thinks it can be made to translate better.

"The NHL athlete does amazing things on skates," Bettman said. "We need to showcase what we do, to show people that what hockey players do on the ice is as great as what Michael Jordan does in the air."

Bettman said he wants the NHL to explore everything connected with television broadcasts. He wants to find the best way to film a game: how many cameras, what angles, from overhead, frombehind the goal. He wants to look at ways to computer-enhance the puck on TV, without actually changing it in the arenas.

"We have to explore everything to improve the look," Bettman said. "For an avid hockey fan, following the puck on TV is no problem, but we want to grab the casual observer, the person who is flipping through the channels. We want to appeal to the people we're not reaching now without turning off the devoted fans we already have."

Bettman said he also wants:

* To start community programs through youth teams and have NHL teams become more a part of their communities.

* A definitive answer from Miami and Anaheim by March 1 on whether they will play in the NHL next season. "I know the way those people do things, and I know if they believe they can't do it right for next season they'll wait a year," he said. "But I believe it's most likely that they will be ready to play next season."

* To discuss ways of capping NHL salaries during collective bargaining agreement talks this spring. He would not say it is a priority item in reaching an agreement with the players union.

Ponder this

Pittsburgh coach Scotty Bowman's record against the Washington Capitals since 1974: 49-7-4. The good news for Capitals fans is that six of those seven losses have come in 1991-92 (five) and 1992-93 (one).

Capital challenged

Could it be the biggest challenge match since Billie Jean King took on Bobby Riggs in tennis? Certainly it will be the fastest. Monday, at high noon, 1988 Olympic gold medalist Cathy Turner skates against defenseman Al Iafrate in "The Battle of the Sexes" at the Piney Orchard Ice Arena.

Turner won her gold medal in the 500-meter speed skating, clocking 47.07 seconds. Iafrate attracted her attention when he qualified for the NHL All-Star speed skatting competition by circling the rink in 13.369 seconds, which is the second fastest qualifying speed in the NHL.

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