Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Clock ticking on Jaromir Jagr and Rangers as young Pens prove mightier

Filip Bondy
New York Daily News
Wednesday, April 30th 2008, 4:00 AM



NEW YORK - APRIL 29: Sidney Crosby #87 of the Pittsburgh Penguins chases Jaromir Jagr #68 of the New York Rangers during Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals of the 2008 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at Madison Square Garden on April 29th, 2008 in New York City. The Penguins won the game 5-3 and lead the series 3-0. (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)

You can't play much better than Jaromir Jagr, who was all over the ice Tuesday night, dug for every puck like a diamond miner, scored a goal and assisted on another. You can only win, which is not an easy thing to do against these Penguins.

"We didn't play bad," Jagr said, his head slumped at his locker after the Rangers' 5-3 loss in Game 3. "I actually believe we can change this. We have a chance to make history."

You wanted to believe him, to think that the Rangers can now somehow win four straight, but of course he's out of his mind. The Rangers have no chance to capture more than perhaps one game against Pittsburgh, which has under cover of mid-Pennsylvania darkness somehow become the Edmonton Oilers of the 1980s.

They are young and brilliant and they are not just Sidney Crosby. They are also Evgeni Malkin, 21, who scored twice last night and Marc-Andre Fleury, 23, who stopped 36 shots.

Jagr can't overcome all that, this red-hot team with a glowing future. The countdown has begun for him, even if he can't quite admit it. One more game this season, maybe two. Jagr then becomes a free agent, and who knows? He isn't thrilled with Tom Renney's cautious offensive system, or the unrealistic expectations piled upon him.

Renney tried to ride his big guy in Game 3. Jagr played for almost 22 minutes, nearly five of them on the power play. He had an astounding 10 shots on goal during that time, scoring on a sharp-angled wrist shot to tie the game, 3-3, one last time at 13:11 of the second period. While Jagr was on the ice, the Rangers won this game by a goal.



NEW YORK - APRIL 29: Jaromir Jagr #68 of the New York Rangers scores a goal to tie the score 3-3 against the Pittsburgh Penguins in the second period of Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals of the 2008 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at Madison Square Garden on April 29th, 2008 in New York City. (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)

But again, that is not how these things work. There were 38 other minutes during the game without Jagr on the ice, and the Rangers were not nearly as dangerous when their 240-pound right wing sat on the bench.

"As outstanding as Malkin was for them, I thought Jaromir Jagr was the best player on the ice tonight," Renney said.

The Rangers have come tantalizingly close now three times without a victory in this series with the Penguins, who are a better team with younger stars. Hockey is about a lot of things. It can mesmerize with its flash and speed. But it is really all about finishing and goaltending. And in these two decisive categories, the Rangers have been outplayed to the brink of elimination.

There were little things that contributed to this kind of failure. Henrik Lundqvist allowed a soft goal early, and Ryan Callahan lifted his stick too high into the face of Hal Gill at just the wrong time. Renney tried to put some physicality into the lineup by playing Ryan Hollweg, and then that backfired when Hollweg committed the critical boarding penalty leading to Malkin's decisive goal late in the second period.

The Penguins were too often allowed to loiter around the crease like teenagers at the mall, setting effective screens that made their fewer shots far more deadly. The Rangers' power play was more playful than powerful, during two key five-on-three advantages in the second period.

There were all these reasons why the Rangers couldn't close the deal. The home team is all but done now, on the same schedule as last season only maybe a little quicker. And the biggest shame of all is that the Rangers have wasted another year in the wondrous career of Jagr, who doesn't have too many of these left on his stick.

He has three goals and nine assists in eight playoff games, yet there will soon be debate about his future. The Rangers open next season in Prague, and it would be a terrible shame if he wasn't there - if only because nobody has stepped up this season to become a more efficient scorer.

It would be better, of course, if the Rangers had Crosby or Malkin. They don't. That is painfully clear, as their young players struggle through another frustrating playoff run. The top scorers on the Rangers this postseason are Jagr, 36, Scott Gomez, 28, Chris Drury, 31, and Martin Straka, 35.

Jagr gave it everything in Game 3, and it wasn't nearly enough. He promised even more tomorrow, which probably won't be enough again.

"It might be my last game," he said. "Let's make it special."

fjbondy@netscape.net

Crosby, Malkin ready for anything

By Mike Prisuta
PITTSBURGH TRIBUNE-REVIEW
Wednesday, April 30, 2008



NEW YORK - APRIL 29: Sidney Crosby #87 of the Pittsburgh Penguins controls the puck against Marc Staal #18 of the New York Rangers during the first period of Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals of the 2008 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at Madison Square Garden on April 29th, 2008 in New York City. (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)

NEW YORK: Next.

And, more significant, what will the Penguins think of next?

They've won at home and they've won on the road while winning every game they've played this postseason.

Tuesday night, they conquered the self-proclaimed "world's most famous arena."

The New York Rangers' faithful started screaming early at Madison Square Garden, as is their habit, letting loose about the time national anthem singer Daniel Rodriguez got to "and the rockets' red glare ..."

They really got into it when Jaromir Jagr brought the Rangers all the way back from a 3-1, second-period deficit.

But the Penguins have had an answer for such developments ever since the first playoff puck dropped against Ottawa.

In Game 3 of the Eastern Conference semifinal series with the Rangers, the answer was Evgeni Malkin.

The freshly named finalist for the Hart Trophy scored a power-play goal at 17:53 of the second period, off an assist from last season's MVP, Sidney Crosby.

The goal, Malkin's second of the game and fifth of the playoffs, stood as the eventual game-winner in a 5-3 triumph.

The Penguins lead the series three games to none.

The future is now.

The play that won Game 3 was made by Crosby's patience and vision, and by Malkin's shot.

With these two, it's always something.

Neither is the player he's going to be at the apex of his career (Crosby is closer to maxing out than Malkin), but both are skilled enough and playoffs-experienced enough to lead a Cup run right now.



NEW YORK - APRIL 29: Evgeni Malkin #71 of the Pittsburgh Penguins celebrates his goal giving the Penguins a 4-3 lead over the New York Rangers in the second period of Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals of the 2008 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at Madison Square Garden on April 29th, 2008 in New York City. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

This just in -- they're doing it before our very eyes this spring.

The Penguins have more going for them, of course, and much of their adaptability and combustibility was on display throughout their seventh consecutive playoff triumph.

The whatever-it-takes mentality they've adopted included Ryan Whitney and Kris Letang playing the role of tough guy in Game 3 and Georges Laraque becoming an unlikely goal-scorer.

Getting outshot for the first time in the playoffs, outshot badly, in fact, wasn't an issue.

The constants throughout have been the special teams, and Crosby and Malkin.

If the Rangers want an answer for all of that, they're going to have to come up with something better than Ryan Hollweg.

Crosby's feed and Malkin's finish allowed the Penguins to regain their equilibrium after they'd coughed up their first two-goal lead and head to the locker room ahead after 40 minutes.

The pivotal power play began with the Penguins struggling to get across the New York blueline, but they got the puck into the Rangers' end with about 1:26 remaining in the man-advantage and kept it there.

Malkin scored with three seconds left in Hollweg's unnecessary boarding penalty.

Dagger.

At the other end, the Rangers were finding room and opportunity with Jagr and Co. skating against Whitney and Letang rather than Brooks Orpik and Sergei Gonchar, a matchup Rangers coach Tom Renney couldn't seem to avoid at Mellon Arena.

But the Rangers' power play deserted them again, failing on five more chances that ran its futility streak to a most unlucky 13 consecutive 0-fers.

Included in all those wasted opportunities were 33- and 42-second stretches of two-man advantage.

You can't have that against Crosby and Malkin and still have a chance.

Mike Prisuta is a columnist for the Tribune-Review. He can be reached at mprisuta@tribweb.com or 412-320-7923.

Malkin breaks out for a Garden party

By Gene Collier
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Wednesday, April 30, 2008



NEW YORK - APRIL 29: Evgeni Malkin #71 of the Pittsburgh Penguins celebrates a goal scored during a power play in the first period to give a 3-1 lead over the New York Rangers in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals of the 2008 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at Madison Square Garden on April 29th, 2008 in New York City. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)


NEW YORK -- Among the lesser-known incongruities rattling around the National Hockey League's exhaustive arithmetic, at least as the puck got dropped for Game 3 of these Eastern Conference semifinals, was Evgeni Malkin's total career goals at Madison Square Garden.

Zero.

Seven career games, two assists, no goals.

That couldn't last.

For just too many obvious reasons.

"The thing about Evgeni's game is that he's so loose when he's controlling the puck," said Marian Hossa in a routinely pleased Penguins locker room late last night. "He's so comfortable with the puck. Not many players have his kind of patience with the puck, especially in big games."

So Geno comfortably scored the third Penguins goal, the one that established a 3-1 lead in the first period, and comfortably scored their fourth goal, which negated the five oceans of perspiration the Rangers used to tie the score in the second.

What it all means is a very, very comfortable 3-0 Penguins lead in this series, and it wouldn't surprise anyone if Malkin ended it tomorrow night with a typically rousing Broadway encore.

"They had us back on our heels," Penguins defenseman Brooks Orpik said of New York's inspired comeback. "We were lucky after the second period to still have the lead."

True, but there isn't a lot of luck involved in what Malkin does on this power play. The Rangers, who scored on their first man-advantage of this series and not since (they're 0 for 13 on the power play since), have to be vexed by the way Malkin makes power-play goals appear so natural.

Last night, it was a simple matter of winding up and firing from the high slot on his first goal. His second, the lethal one, was set up when Sidney Crosby tried a cross-ice pass that deflected off Ryan Callahan's stick and trickled toward Malkin on the right wing. Rather than charge it and risk having it hop over his stick, Geno waited calmly until it settled itself, then whistled it past Henrik Lundqvist for the lead New York could not overcome.

It was Malkin's goal that won Game 1 of this series, you've noted, and it's too bad his playoff total of 12 points thus far can't be considered by the people who vote for the Hart Trophy, for which Malkin was named a finalist just yesterday.

Jaromir Jagr's 75th career playoff goal seemed more than a mere milestone when he whipped it past Marc-Andre Fleury late in the second period, mostly because it fully extracted the desperate Rangers from a two-goal deficit and signaled the larger hockey audience that the Penguins aren't the only club with quick-strike ability in this struggle.



NEW YORK - APRIL 29: Evgeni Malkin #71 of the Pittsburgh Penguins takes a shot past Fedor Tyutin #51 of the New York Rangers during the first period of Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals of the 2008 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at Madison Square Garden on April 29th, 2008 in New York City. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

Callahan's goal barely a minute and a half earlier got New York off the deck, and seemed to indicate that there might be some point, after all, to outshooting the Penguins, 29-13, through two periods.

Michel Therrien's team had outshot its opponent in every game of these Stanley Cup playoffs, but last night let itself be suffocated by New York's defensive system. Only the fact that the Penguins were shooting like the Pitt Panthers at Madison Square Garden allowed them to gain a lead in the first place.

The game and the series might have swung irretrievably from New York's ability to salvage any subsequent drama in a fateful 92-second span late in the first period.

It was then that the Garden audience was shockingly invited to smell what Laraque's got cookin', namely Georges' go-ahead goal at the 17:49 mark, then sat in stunned silence as Malkin sent his power-play marker past Chris Drury and through a Ryan Malone screen for a 3-1 Penguins lead.

The Rangers already had been witness to the Penguins' quick-strike ability twice before in this series, but these two goals, coming just minutes after the Rangers had worked so feverishly at Fleury's doorstep to tie the score, 1-1, had about them some aura of finality.

When Martin Straka finally whacked Jagr's rebound across the goal line after an insane scramble, it appeared that New York had finally been rewarded for a first period in which it carried the play consistently to the Penguins' zone and peppered Fleury time and again with decent scoring chances.

Some rough-housing in the aftermath of Straka's goal crowded both penalty boxes like a crosstown bus, which is why Laraque was on the Sykora-Malkin line in the first place. When Sykora dug the puck free behind Lundqvist and slid it to Laraque in front, the big man knew exactly what do to.

All that was necessary for that third goal, practically, was for Hal Gill to take a sharp stick in the eye, which he did, courtesy of Callahan. Callahan got whistled for a double minor for that very high stick, and Malkin cashed in seconds later.

The Penguins have rammed home a power-play goal in all seven playoff games. If the Penguins are going to win by two goals on a night when they get outshot, 39-17, on the road, perhaps you'd better clear your calendar for another month or so.

Gene Collier can be reached at gcollier@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1283.
First published on April 30, 2008 at 12:00 am

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Cowardly Avery tried to take out Crosby

By Joe Starkey
PITTSBURGH TRIBUNE-REVIEW
Tuesday, April 29, 2008



PITTSBURGH - APRIL 27: Sean Avery #16 of the New York Rangers is cross-checked by Hal Gill #2 of the Pittsburgh Penguins and falls onto goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury #29 of the Penguins during game two of the Eastern Conference Semifinals of the 2008 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs on April 27, 2008 at Mellon Arena in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Gill's penalty gave New York one last chance on the power play to tie the game, but the Rangers fell short losing 2-0 to Pittsburgh. (Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images)

Adam Graves all over again.

That's what I was thinking as I watched replays of Sean Avery's assault on Sidney Crosby with 6 seconds left in the first period Sunday.

It happened in the neutral zone, away from the puck.

Avery, the New York Rangers' resident coward, came up from behind -- as cowards often do -- and took two chopping slashes at Crosby's left wrist.

Neither hack was the kind of baseball-style swing that Graves took on Mario Lemieux in Game 2 of a 1992 playoff series between these teams -- the one that broke Lemieux's left hand -- but Avery obviously intended to inflict some damage.

The first slash connected. Luckily for Crosby, the harder second one did not, only because he'd whipped his smarting wrist out of the way.

Avery wasn't penalized.

Crosby didn't make an issue of it on the ice. He didn't mention it after the game or when he addressed reporters at his locker Monday.

Nobody asked Crosby about the incident, either, which means a lot of people probably didn't see it. Sneak attacks are designed that way.

In a quieter moment after yesterday's media session, I asked Crosby if he thought Avery was trying to injure him.

"He wasn't going for the puck," Crosby said. "He was going for my wrist."

A call to the Rangers' media relations office yesterday seeking comment from Avery wasn't returned.

Carefully choosing his words, Crosby went on.

"Obviously, he was trying to make me feel it a bit," he said. "I don't know if it was a direct intent to hurt me or anything. ... I guess he was just letting me know that he's there."

How's the wrist?

"I felt it," Crosby said, smiling. "It's just sore, nothing major."

Penguins coach Michel Therrien said he was well aware of the incident and added, somewhat cryptically, "I'm working on that right now."

Asked if that meant he was going to send a tape to league headquarters, Therrien said no.

I asked NHL spokesman Frank Brown if the league was reviewing Avery's actions.

"We review everything, every play of every game," Brown said.

But is the league reviewing that particular play for the purpose of possibly suspending Avery?

"If there is any action that is needed that would cause this person not to play (tonight), it will be announced before the game is played," Brown said.

In Game 1, Avery raked his stick across Crosby's face and wasn't penalized.

It's not exactly news that Avery is a league-wide joke. Or, as Penguins winger Gary Roberts put it a few weeks ago, "an idiot."

Roberts was speaking in the aftermath of Avery's ridiculous face-guarding act against New Jersey goaltender Martin Brodeur.

You might have heard what Avery did at the Rangers' next practice, when he realized a television camera had caught him re-enacting his face-guarding routine. He made an obscene gesture to the camera.

This is the kind of maladjusted mental midget you're dealing with.

Before this series, one Penguins player told me many of Avery's teammates on the Los Angeles Kings despised him and were thrilled when he was traded to the Rangers.

In a recent Sports Illustrated poll of 365 NHL players, Avery was voted the league's dirtiest player by a wide margin. He garnered 24 percent of the vote, compared to 11 percent for Anaheim's Chris Pronger and 10 percent for Penguins winger Jarkko Ruutu.

Who knows why this obnoxious little gnat is such an attention seeker? Maybe Penguins defenseman Hal Gill got it right in Game 2, after the benches exchanged words.

NBC analyst Pierre McGuire, stationed between the benches, said, "Hal Gill just said to Avery, 'You just weren't hugged enough as a child. That's why you've got issues.' "

Should be an interesting atmosphere tonight at Madison Square Garden, what with a blood-thirsty crowd harassing Crosby and Penguins goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury, who traded slashes with Avery at the end of Game 2.

At least those slashes were exchanged in plain sight and not in the shadowy outskirts, where cowards love to roam.

Joe Starkey is a sports writer for the Tribune-Review. He can be reached at jstarkey@tribweb.com.

Morris released after 0-4 start

By Paul Meyer
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Monday, April 28, 2008



Paul Sancya/Associated Press

Matt Morris yesterday left the Pirates -- or did he?

"One of the best in the game," first baseman Adam LaRoche said a few minutes after the Pirates officially released the right-hander. "That's what everybody who played with him and everybody who played against him say.

"He's made that impact on people. People love him and respect him. There are only a few out there who have that kind of impact."

"I love him," starter Ian Snell said. "I'm thankful for him. He was always showing us how to be big league pitchers. He'd talk about baseball -- and life. I give him a lot of credit for dealing with young pitchers who were immature. He helped us mature."

Perhaps those lessons Morris taught and the impact Morris had will live on. And never mind that the final stat line of his career was the ugly 1 2/3 innings he labored through against Philadelphia Saturday night.

Or that his 2008 record will be no wins, four losses and a 9.67 earned run average.

"This is not the defining moment for Matt Morris," Pirates manager John Russell said. "I'm not going to remember him that way -- and nobody in that clubhouse will remember him that way."

Left-hander Phil Dumatrait, who pitched four innings in relief of Morris Saturday night, will take his spot in the rotation and start in Washington Thursday night.

The Pirates yesterday called up right-hander John Van Benschoten from Class AAA Indianapolis to provide depth in the bullpen for at least the short term.

The Pirates owe Morris, 33, a little more than $10 million, which includes the rest of his 2008 salary and the $1 million contract buyout he had for 2009.

"The Pirates' decision to release Matt Morris was a difficult one, but not because of the financial implications of that decision," Pirate president Frank Coonelly said. "We will not avoid making the changes necessary to return the Pirates to a championship caliber club because of monetary considerations.

"Matt is the consummate professional, a very good teammate and a proud man. Matt has worked extremely hard to help the Pirates win, both by his own work on the field and by the valuable counsel and support he provided to his teammates. That is what made informing Matt of his release difficult."

The Pirates acquired Morris -- and his contract -- from the San Francisco Giants July 31 for outfielder Rajai Davis and minor league pitcher Stephen MacFarland. That move, Coonelly said yesterday, "did not turn out to be a sound baseball judgment."

Morris was 7-3 with a 2.56 earned run average in his first 13 starts for the Giants last season, but his numbers began to fall off prior to the trade.

Those numbers continued to track downward after he came to the Pirates. He was 3-4 with 6.10 earned run average in his 11 starts for them last season.

He struggled in spring training and struggled through most of his 22 1/3 innings this season.

"I could feel it all coming to an end," Morris said. "It's not what I planned, but it's best for the organization. It's best for the team. I've been a burden on the bullpen. It's been hard to deal with mentally.

"It's tough when you're out there competing and giving 100 percent and just not able to do it at this point. I accepted it. Being here was a great segment in my life, but I really can't wait to move on and be with my family. It's a sad day, but it's also a joyful day."

Does he think when he looks back he'll realize he had a pretty decent 12-year major league career which included 121 victories?

"I don't think that will be today or tomorrow," Morris said. "Those things kind of soak in later on, but I am proud of my career. I didn't mean for or want it to end this way, but I always said the other team will let you know when you're done.

"The outings I've had and some of the fan appreciation has not been so great, but it's all part of it and it's time to move on."

Morris did not officially retire yesterday, but it's highly doubtful he'll pitch again.

Did he think when he walked off the mound in the second inning Saturday night that his morning yesterday would turn out as it did?

Morris paused a long while before answering.

"That's a tough one," he said. "I knew it was close. It wasn't far off. I wish I could have gone off with more dignity and [held] my head high. But when you're battling and [throwing 49] pitches to get three outs [in the first inning], it's difficult."

So what's next?

"I'm going to go home and just figure things out and start my life," Morris said.

First published on April 28, 2008 at 12:00 am

Monday, April 28, 2008

Steelers Draft Day 2

Closer look at who the Steelers drafted on the second day of the 73rd NFL draft

Monday, April 28, 2008
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

No. 3: BRUCE DAVIS

Position: OLB • Ht: 6-2 1/2 • Wt: 252 • School: UCLA



The skinny: Played right defensive end for the Bruins' 4-3 defense but projects to linebacker in the Steelers' 3-4. ... Father Bruce played offensive tackle for the Raiders in the late 1970s and Oilers in the 1980s. ... Steelers hope to groom him the way they did other converted DEs, but also plan to use him to spot starters LaMarr Woodley and James Harrison this year. ... Had 24 1/2 sacks the past two seasons at UCLA at DE after playing some OLB as a sophomore. ... Used as OLB at Senior Bowl; Steelers say he also can play ILB but will put him at OLB. ... Native of Houston, Texas.

No. 4: TONY HILLS

• Position: OT • Ht: 6-5 • Wt: 309 • School: Texas



The skinny: Considered more of a finesse left tackle than a power blocker. ... Has had problems with drop foot and has had various injuries, including major knee injury, since his high school days. Steelers believe he's recovered from all fully. ... Has good size and arm length for the position. ... Steelers say Texas coaches told them he's better than former Longorn LT Jonathan Scott, a starter for the Detroit Lions. ... Needs to work on his lower body strength, which was limited because of past injuries.

No. 5: DENNIS DIXON

• Position: QB • Ht: 6-3 1/2 • Wt: 198 • School: Oregon



The skinny: Surprise pick for a team that just paid $102 million to its 26-year-old starting quarterback, and has veteran Charlie Batch at No. 2. ... Has a strong arm and would have been a much higher draft choice except that his ACL was torn and he missed the final three games because of it. ... Atlanta Braves drafted him in the fifth round in 2007 and he played the outfield for them last summer in Orlando. He said football is his passion and baseball no longer in his plans. ... Has a great upside and Steelers can be patient with him. ... Steelers plan to keep him at QB and not try him as a "Slash.''

No. 6: MIKE HUMPAL

• Position: LB • Ht: 6-2 1/2 • Wt: 244 • School: Iowa



The skinny: He started the past two seasons at weakside outside linebacker for the Hawkeyes in their 4-3 defense. ... Not a pass rusher and had one career sack. ... Had 123 tackles last season. ... Will play inside linebacker for the Steelers, but can help himself and them by playing on special teams first.

No. 6: RYAN MUNDY

• Position: FS • Ht: 6-0 1/2 • Wt: 208 • School: West Virginia



The skinny: Woodland Hills High School graduate from Wilkins. ... He played four seasons at Michigan, where he started 18 games and graduated. Under a rule since rescinded, he was permitted to transfer and play immediately at West Virginia because he had graduated. ... Smart player who picked up Mountaineers' defensive scheme quickly and called the plays. ... Good size for the position and decent speed in the 4.5 range.

First published on April 28, 2008 at 12:00 am

Davis fits team's linebacker mold

Steelers' third pick has solid lineage

By Ed Bouchette
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Monday, April 28, 2008



December 2, 2006. Photo by Steve McCrank.
USC's quarterback John David Booty (10) is brought down behind the line of scrimmage by UCLA's Bruce Davis (44) in the second half Saturday at the Rose Bowl.


What's with all these sons of former Oakland Raiders pouring into the NFL this weekend? There was Howie Long's kid, Chris, the second overall draft pick. And yesterday, the Steelers took the son of a nemesis with their third-round choice.

Bruce Davis played offensive tackle for the Raiders in the late '70s, then switched to another Steelers rival, the old Central Division enemy Houston Oilers for most of the '80s.



BRUCE DAVIS

The Steelers drafted his son, Bruce Davis II, to play outside linebacker for them, and he comes with the same kind of blueprint that delivered players to them such as Joey Porter, Clark Haggans and Jason Gildon. None was a high round pick and all were converted college defensive ends who became productive outside linebackers in Pittsburgh.

Davis became the first pick for the Steelers on the second day of the NFL draft in which they did not fulfill perhaps their biggest potential need -- at defensive end -- made a trade and drafted a quarterback.

Coach Mike Tomlin said the team needed to get bigger and younger in both of its lines, but it took the Steelers until the fourth round to address that at all and it was the only time they did in the two days of the draft. They selected 6-foot-5, 309-pound offensive tackle Tony Hills of Texas.

"You just can't get everybody," said Kevin Colbert, the team's director of football operations.



DENNIS DIXON

Drafting injured Oregon quarterback Dennis Dixon in the fifth round was a surprise because they still had not addressed their dire depth need at defensive end and because they have Ben Roethlisberger and Charlie Batch at the position. Dixon still has not fully recovered from a torn ACL sustained late last season but should be OK for training camp, team officials said.

The Steelers picked up an extra sixth-round pick by swapping places with the New York Giants in the fourth round. They selected Iowa linebacker Mike Humpal and West Virginia safety Ryan Mundy, a Woodland Hills High School graduate.

At 6-2 1/2, 252, Davis was considered too small to play defensive end the way he did in UCLA's 4-3 defense the past two years. But his 24 1/2 sacks during that time and his ability to make the adjustment to outside linebacker at the Senior Bowl convinced the Steelers he can follow the path of others who have successfully made the conversion here.

"He's kind of a hybrid, like a lot of the guys we've drafted," said Keith Butler, who coaches the Steelers linebackers. "We feel he can make the transition."

Butler, a former Seattle linebacker, played against Davis Sr., as did current Steelers scout Joe Greene, who told young Davis his dad was among the first 300-pound tackles he ever played against. Now, his son will try to crack a defense Mean Joe helped make famous.

"There is definitely a rich tradition at outside linebacker," Davis said. "It is a great feeling to know that the coaching staff and hopefully the people of Pittsburgh feel the same way about me. I know the tradition that I have to carry on. Tradition is very important to me."

The Steelers usually put such converted ends on special teams for a year or so as they teach them a new position. Butler said, however, they hope to use Davis to spell their two starting outside linebackers, Pro Bowler James Harrison and second-year man LaMarr Woodley.

"We feel that we needed somebody to provide us some help in that area so that James Harrison and LaMarr, as the season goes along, they don't wear down," Butler said. "Or, as the game goes along, in the fourth quarter, we'll be fresh. Hopefully, this guy can be that guy for us."

Hills arrives on a team needing offensive tackles beyond next season, when three of their four experienced tackles could become free agents. He started at left tackle for the Longhorns; at best he'll serve as a backup his rookie season.



TONY HILLS

After that pick, Steelers line coach Larry Zierlein talked about the state of his offensive line. He said Willie Colon would remain at right tackle and Max Starks will get a chance to compete for that job again. He said Chris Kemoeatu not only will step into Alan Faneca's spot as the starting left guard, but was close to starting at right guard last season instead of Kendall Simmons, who earned a big new contract extension last summer.

"He was ready to play last year," Zierlein said of Kemoeatu. "He was ready and Kendall kind of won the thing, but it was close ... the grades were close."

Dixon was drafted because he has a powerful arm, great potential and they have the luxury of allowing his torn ACL to fully heal before they let him compete for the No. 2 job in 2009.

"Big Ben Roethlisberger is a great quarterback," Dixon said, "and I want to learn the ins and outs of playing the quarterback position."


NOTES -- The Steelers were busy trying to sign 11 or 12 rookie free agents last night and hoping to find several defensive ends. ... All the rookies will join the veterans at a minicamp at the Steelers' facility Friday through Sunday.


Ed Bouchette can be reached at ebouchette@post-gazette.com.
First published on April 28, 2008 at 12:00 am

The No. One Pick: Rashard Mendenhall

Comparisons differ, but basically this RB from Illinois will run you over

By Gerry Dulac
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Sunday, April 27, 2008



Scott Strazzante/Chicago Tribune
Rashard Mendenhall speaks with the media at the Chicago House of Blues yesterday.


When he was asked which National Football League running back he most resembled, Rashard Mendenhall compared himself to a player that not most people would consider:

LaDainian Tomlinson.

At 225 pounds, Mendenhall has been compared more to Laurence Maroney of the New England Patriots -- a player who runs with toughness and attitude inside the tackles, but has the athleticism and cutback ability to break plays to the outside.

But Joe Galambos, who has coached Mendenhall since fifth grade and closely has monitored his development, tended to agree with his former pupil. Only he went a step further.

"He'll run you over if you get in his way," Galambos was saying last night over the telephone from the House of Blues in Chicago, where he was celebrating Mendenhall's first-round selection by the Steelers. "But he's more of a Gale Sayers, Barry Sanders type of runner. He's a stop-and-go-on-a-dime kind of guy.

"They pumped him up pretty good at Illinois, they made him a tough inside runner, but, by far, it's not the strength of his ability. He's a tremendous, tremendous athlete. And I don't say that because I'm biased, I say that as a football coach."

Galambos has never really left Mendenhall since his childhood. He followed him to Niles West High School in Skokie, Ill., where he was the running backs coach, and he has remained one of his closest confidants.

He said he became convinced of Mendenhall's ability when, as a fifth grader, Mendenhall played on a team of seventh- and eighth-graders and flashed the speed and athleticism that became his trademark at Illinois.

That's why Galambos was thrilled to see him land with the Steelers, who had him rated as the second-best back in the draft behind Darren McFadden of Arkansas, the fourth overall pick of the Oakland Raiders.

"McFadden is a good running back, a good player, but I think Rashard has more to him," Galambos said. "Jonathan Stewart [drafted 13th overall by the Carolina Panthers] is a great player, too, but you'll see. I think Rashard Mendenhall is a way better athlete and you'll see when he gets into town. You'll see what I mean when you watch his footwork, his athleticism."

Illinois coach Ron Zook, a former Steelers assistant, agreed.

"You see the Rose Bowl?" he asked, almost giddy with delight. "He ran away from some of [Southern California's] guys, and, as we all know, they have pretty good speed."

Mendenhall, a junior, spent only one season as a full-time starter for Illinois, but it was a productive one. He rushed for 1,681 yards, averaged 6.4 yards per carry and scored 17 touchdowns. He also caught 34 passes for 318 yards and two touchdowns.



But, in what would be his final appearance in the Rose Bowl, Mendenhall rushed for 168 yards on 17 carries and caught five passes for 59 yards against the Trojans. That performance is what caught the attention of most NFL teams, including the Steelers, even though coach Mike Tomlin and director of football operations Kevin Colbert never thought Mendenhall would be around when they picked 23rd overall. That's one of the reasons they didn't meet with him for one of the 30 pre-draft interviews.

"That's the thing that sets him apart -- he has the speed to go the distance," Zook said. "He's a great back and a smart kid. And the best part of his career is still in front of him."

Mendenhall wasn't just groomed to be a football player.

His mother, Sybil, said he tried everything as a kid -- basketball, soccer, track, golf, even playing the clarinet. But he was so quiet, so unassuming, that he never stood out in the crowd -- until he got on the football field.

When he was in grade school, he played on the same team with his older brother, Walter, whom he followed to the same high school, even to Illinois. Together, they helped their youth-league team win 56 consecutive games. Walter Mendenhall, though, has decided to transfer from Illinois and, according to Galambos, will enroll at Illinois State.

"Rashard was always kind of laid-back," said his mother, a teachers aide in an elementary school in Skokie. Sybil Mendenhall moved back to the Chicago area last year to be closer to her son. "He's a humble homebody. He likes to go to movies, art museums, he likes to go to concerts ... music is a big thing with him."

When Mendenhall was in the third grade, he told his mom he wanted to play the clarinet. So she bought him the instrument -- with one prerequisite.

"I told him, you ask for it, you don't get to put it down," she said. "He played it all the way through high school. But I don't know what happened to that clarinet."

Mendenhall makes the same kind of fluid sounds on the football field, has since the fifth grade. Quiet, polite and reserved, football became his passion. And he never let it go.

Mendenhall carried a football with him everywhere he went in grade school, even his eighth-grade graduation. But when he walked to the stage with a football in his hand, one of the teachers took it from him when he went to accept his grade-school diploma.

"He's very low maintenance," his mother said. "I don't think anyone there has to worry about Rashard. The people there will be really proud of him."

Said Zook: "Pittsburgh is going to be happy with him. He's a good kid, really a classy guy."

First published on April 27, 2008 at 12:31 am

The Steelers believe their second-round pick is a first-rate talent

By Gerry Dulac
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Monday, April 28, 2008



Donna McWilliam/Associated Press
The Steelers used their second pick Saturday on Texas receiver Limas Sweed.


Limas Sweed, the son of a preacher man, got most of his professional teaching from his mother. She was the sports person in the family, not his father, who really wasn't into the "whole sports thing."

But Sweed's mom, a self-avowed sports fan, knew mostly about basketball. So she wanted her son, who was 6 feet 2 in the seventh grade, to be a basketball player and pushed him in that direction.

"From the time I was born, basically, I thought I was going to be a basketball player," Sweed said. "Then I played my first football game and caught my first pass, my eyes were so big and I was so nervous ... but I can remember catching that pass and having that feeling.

"And from then on it was just football, football, football."

Turned out to be a good decision, not only for Sweed, a 6-41/2, 219-pound wide receiver from the University of Texas, but also for the Steelers, who used their second pick in the NFL draft, 53rd overall, to select him -- a player they had rated among the top 25 overall prospects in the draft.

"He made up his mind, that's what he's going to do," said Glen West, Sweed's head coach at Brenham High School in Texas. "He said, I'm going to play professional football ... With him, it was matter of fact."

After he was drafted by the Steelers, Sweed received a congratulatory call from another former Texas receiver -- Roy Williams, a player to whom Sweed has been compared.

But Williams, the seventh overall pick of the Detroit Lions in the 2004 NFL draft, is faster than Sweed, who was timed at 4.5 in the 40-yard dash.

"He's kind of been like a brother to me, a mentor," Sweed said.

There was another reason for the comparison: Sweed chose to wear No. 4 at Texas, the number Williams used to wear with the Longhorns.

"A lot of people worried when Limas tried to wear the same one," Texas coach Mack Brown said. "But he represented that number well. Limas has left a legacy at Texas. He's got great speed and great hands. We think he can be a true star in the NFL."

Curiously, Sweed had a chance to skip his final year at Texas and enter the NFL draft after the 2006 season. But he decided to return for his senior year and get his degree, even though the decision might have cost him a few bonus dollars. Bothered by a wrist problem that had been nagging him since August, Sweed had surgery to correct ligament damage and missed the final seven games last season.

The Steelers, though, are convinced Sweed's wrist injury is fully healed and will not be a problem when he gets to training camp.

Sweed ran, but did not catch passes, at the NFL's Scouting Combine in February, leading some to believe his injury was not fully healed. But, in an attempt to convince NFL scouts and coaches otherwise, he caught passes and ran again during his Pro Day workout.

Make no mistake, Sweed can run. And jump. In high school, he ran track and competed in the 110-meter high hurdles, finishing third in the state finals. The combination of size, speed, vertical leap and strength -- he could bench-press 325 pounds as a senior -- made him difficult to defend. It was the reason he had 31 touchdowns among his 71 career receptions.

Sweed began his high school career as a safety, starting as a sophomore. But when the offense got near the goal line, he was used as a receiver. He started at receiver as a junior.

"His mom really wanted him to be a basketball player because he was always a big individual," West said.

At Texas, Sweed finished second in school history with 20 touchdown catches and fifth in yards receiving (1,915). What's more, he started 39 games in a row before he had surgery Oct. 16 to correct ligament damage in his wrist and missed the final seven games of the 2007 season.

That injury may be why he slipped to the second round.

"That was unexpected," Steelers director of football operations Kevin Colbert said. "Like [Rashard] Mendenhall was unexpected at No. 1."

He was smiling when he said that.

Gerry Dulac can be reached at gdulac@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1466.
First published on April 28, 2008 at 12:00 am

RANGER DANGER

ERROR-PRONE BLUESHIRTS IN 2-0 HOLE

By LARRY BROOKS
New York Post



Pittsburgh Penguins' Jordan Staal (11) flips the puck over New York Rangers goalie Henrik Lundquist, of Sweden, during second-period NHL playoff hockey action in Pittsburgh, Sunday, April 27, 2008.
(AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)


April 28, 2008 -- PITTSBURGH - They lost a track meet in Game 1 on Friday and they lost a pitchers' duel in Game 2 yesterday. Now the RangersNew York Rangers have to be much better if they are going to win a hockey game against the Penguins when this Eastern Conference semifinal continues with Game 3 at the Garden tomorrow night.

"We have to up it a notch, there's no doubt about that," Scott Gomez said after yesterday's 2-0 empty-net abetted defeat. "We have a lot to work on. We're making too many mistakes. We're playing a good hockey team. We have to make it harder for them."

If the players in uniform have to be sharper, then so does Tom Renney. The coach simply must ride his best players against a deep opponent. He must make adjustments on the fly.

He must get Jaromir JagrJaromir Jagr more than the 19:35 of ice he got yesterday. He must be willing to get speed - and/or Jagr - on Gomez's right side more often than he has thus far. He mustn't have the fourth line on the ice for an offensive zone draw midway through the third period of a 1-0 game as he did yesterday.

The Rangers played perhaps their best defensive game of the playoffs - Marc Staal was gigantic - but they failed to pressure the Penguins' defense off the forecheck and they failed to test Marc-Andre Fleury to any substantial degree.



PITTSBURGH - APRIL 27: Goaltender Henrik Lundqvist #30 of the New York Rangers dives across to block a shot by Ryan Malone #12 of the Pittsburgh Penguins during game two of the Eastern Conference Semifinals of the 2008 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs on April 27, 2008 at Mellon Arena in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images)

Unable to create traffic in front at even-strength, the Blueshirts were abysmal on the power play. They were even worse than late in the third, unable to manufacture a single shot in two advantages within the final 6:06, even while operating 6-on-4 after pulling Henrik Lundqvist with 50 seconds remaining on the power play.

"We seemed to be scrambling on the power play all the time," Chris Drury said. "The puck was bouncing and jumping, but that's no excuse.

"We have to generate more."

The Blueshirts were 0-for-6 in 11:38 with the man-advantage. The Penguins, meanwhile, were able to break the scoreless tie at 13:55 of the second when Jordan Staal scored on the power play, beating Lundqvist from close range off a feed from Evgeni Malkin. Adam Hall got the empty-netter with 17 seconds to go in the third.

"We know we have to put more pressure on them," said Lundqvist, whose big-time performance was highlighted by a first-period stop on a Marian Hossa breakaway. "It feels like the difference between the two teams is not so big.

"They made it tough for us to get in there, but hopefully in New York we'll find the way. We have to be confident that when we get back home we can take two the way they did here."



PITTSBURGH - APRIL 27: Sean Avery #16 of the New York Rangers has words with goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury #29 of the Pittsburgh Penguins as Hal Gill #2 of the Penguins holds Avery back after the end of regulation of Game Two of the Eastern Conference Semifinals of the 2008 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs on April 27, 2008 at Mellon Arena in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images)

Brandon Dubinsky, who overstayed too many shifts, did not have one of his better games. Gomez, who was able to routinely gain the zone, nevertheless turned over the puck too often and wasn't pinpoint on his passes.

Brendan Shanahan, who established a presence in front on the power play, wasn't an even-strength factor. Sean Avery, who got into a bit of brouhaha with Fleury and Hal Gill at the end of the game, wasn't a factor, either.

"You know how a playoff series is," said Jagr. "Everything can change in a minute."

The Rangers and Renney have 60 minutes to change things tomorrow night.

larry.brooks@nypost.com

Hall-mark moment typifies Pens' effort

By Joe Starkey
PITTSBURGH TRIBUNE-REVIEW
Monday, April 28, 2008



The Penguins' Hal Gill (left) and Adam Hall celebrate Hall's empty-net goal with Jordan Staal late in the third period Sunday against the New York Rangers at Mellon Arena. The Penguins won, 2-0, to take a 2-0 series lead.
Christopher Horner/Tribune-Review


In basketball parlance, this was a half-court game - the kind a lot of people figured would favor the New York Rangers.

But guess what?

The Penguins can play any style you want.

"It was a tight defensive game, and we responded," said coach Michel Therrien, basking in the afterglow of a 2-0 victory that gave his team a 2-0 chokehold on this second-round series. "A lot of people don't know we were third in the Eastern Conference in goals-against average."

That is true. The Penguins allowed 2.58 goals per game, the second-best mark in franchise history. They ranked right behind the New Jersey Devils and the Rangers, who used a stifling 1-4 trap to register a conference-leading 2.32 goals-against average.

Of course, a lot of people probably don't know the Penguins also had the best record in the East when leading after two periods (36-1-3) and the second-best when leading after one (21-3-2).

Those numbers speak to versatile players working within the confines of an effective system.

Which speaks to good coaching.

When the Penguins so choose, they can drop into their 1-2-2 trap and muck it up with the best of 'em -- even the ultra-oppressive Rangers.

Did anybody see anything resembling a Rangers' breakaway?

How about an odd-man break?

Shoot, how about a glorious scoring opportunity of any kind?

Maybe a few. And that's not to discredit Penguins goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury, who stopped 26 shots for his second career playoff shutout. He was very good when he needed to be, including on a Jaromir Jagr chance he thwarted with his right pad in the second period.



The Penguins' Ryan Malone checks New York's Ryan Callahan into the Rangers bench past linesman Brian Murphy during the third period Sunday at Mellon Arena. The Penguins won, 2-0, to take a 2-0 series lead.
Christopher Horner/Tribune-Review


But Rangers coach Tom Renney put it best when he said, "I'm not going to suggest it was really easy for (Fleury), but it certainly could have been tougher."

Credit the plucky Penguins for that, on a day when the Rangers held Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin to a combined five shots and one assist (a beautiful Malkin setup on Jordan Staal's goal).

"I think Michel has brought in a good system, and when you're playing within the system and everybody knows the system and everybody buys into the system, well, obviously, you're going to be a better team defensively," said assistant coach Andre Savard, who runs a penalty kill that snuffed all six Rangers' power plays. "Every player's buying in."

Don't get the wrong idea. The Penguins are an elite team because they are fortunate enough to own some of the best young talent ever assembled in one dressing room.

Crosby and Malkin would make any coach look good.

But in order to win a Stanley Cup, you need a structure - and you need guys such as Adam Hall.

Two weeks ago, Hall, 27, was on the outside looking in.

Yesterday, he was on the ice in the final minute, helping to protect a 1-0 lead against a 6-on-4 Rangers' attack.

Hall had missed 31 of the team's final 33 regular-season games because of a sports hernia that required surgery. He rejoined the lineup for Game 3 against Ottawa, replacing an injured Gary Roberts.

"At some points, you feel like you're left out," Hall said, "and you don't want anybody to forget about you."

Small chance of that after what happened with 16.7 seconds left yesterday. Hall made a nice play to clear the puck off the glass ... and as it slid along the ice, it broke like a Pedro Martinez curveball, all the way into the empty net.

The place went nuts.

Call it a Hall-mark moment.

"You kind of saw it take a turn there," Hall said, "and you raise the eyebrows, like, 'That might have a chance.' "

Savard, like everybody else in the old steel barn, got a charge out of that goal.

"It's nice to see that for, what do they say, a blue-collar guy?" Savard said. "Pittsburgh, they recognize blue collars. They do. I've noticed that. They love that."

They love winning, most of all, and the Penguins are proving they can win in a variety of ways.


Joe Starkey is a sports writer for the Tribune-Review. He can be reached at jstarkey@tribweb.com.

King Henry solid, but Rangers not great

By Gene Collier
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Monday, April 28, 2008



Matt Freed/Post-Gazette
The Rangers' Henrik Lundqvist stops a shot by the Penguins' Marian Hossa in the first period
.

Keeping holy the Sabbath, the Penguins quietly celebrated their faith yesterday inside the Uptown Temple of Slashing and Cross checking.

Though not listed officially among the globe's organized religions, it was nonetheless and nothing less than hockey orthodoxy that allowed them to sidestep the New York Rangers and pack for Manhattan with a two-games-to-none series lead.

The primary tenet of Pittsburgh's faith yesterday was that into the net the puck shall goeth, eventually, despite all worldly evidence to the contrary.

"I knew we were going to score at least one," Jarkko Ruutu said in the minutes after he and the Penguins hammered down their sixth consecutive playoff victory, winning 2-0. "He can't save them all."

He can't?

Henrik Lundqvsit spent the first 33 minutes in the Rangers' goal yesterday looking as though he could glove a moth in a snowstorm.

Then he got better.

In a riotous sequence early in the first period, King Henry turned Marian Hossa's breakaway dipsy-do's back toward Doodipsy, stopped Sergie Gonchar's 500-mph slapper, stoned Sidney Crosby on the doorstep to his right.

Nothing was getting past him, and it looked as though that might be the case for the next week or so.

"It's going to go in sooner or later," Jordan Staal said right from the puck catechism. "And that's what it did."

And so it is written.



Peter Diana/Post-Gazette
Jordan Staal celebrates a goal against the Rangers at Mellon Arena.


But it didn't go in before the Rangers had all but flipped the momentum of the series. When the Penguins won Game 1, 5-4, in the final minutes, it was the first time the Rangers had allowed five goals in a game since Feb. 15. When the one real surprise from that first episode was that Lundqvist looked strangely vulnerable, New York's immediate future would clearly fulcrum on whether the Rangers goalie could regain his generally immense confidence.

"He was terrific," said Rangers boss Tom Renney, who had no trouble offering that many of his Lundqvist's teammates weren't. "I don't want to put too fine a point on it; we weren't good enough, but we have some things to build on."

How much construction is planned prior to tomorrow's Game 3 at Madison Square Garden wasn't definitively explained, but it won't have very much to do with goaltending. Early in the second period, the Penguins put so much pressure on Lundqvist that Rangers backcheckers were practically bumping into each other, but no puck crossed the line.

When Lundqvist stopped an uncontested Crosby blast from the right faceoff circle at the 13:30 mark of the second period, the sense that this was the game Henrik would steal by himself hung in the stale Arena air palpably.

Crosby wagged his head at that suggestion.

"We had some great chances," quothe the Kid, whom Henrik kept off the score sheet for the first time in five playoff games. "We could have had more than one by that time. A few times we had an open net and we fumbled the puck or whatever."

It was just 25 seconds later that the Rangers ran out of whatevers. It started with Evgeni Malkin twisting through the left circle past New York defenseman Marc Staal, Jordan's older brother, then sweeping the puck to Jordan, who whistled it past Lundqvist.

"We know how good [Lundqvist] can be," Staal said. "He was making great saves right off the bat, but you just keep plugging away. It's gotta go in sooner or later."

Yeah I keep hearing that, which I guess is why, on a day when Marc Andre-Fleury countered Lundqvist's brilliance with a gritty shutout, the puck was spotted in the Penguins goal in the glow of a red lamp with 4:14 remaining in the third period. Martin Straka appeared to have poked it between Fleury's pads to tie the score at that point, but everyone at ice level including the Rangers seemed satisfied that the whistle had blown, rightly or not.



Peter Diana/Post-Gazette
Sidney Crosby and the Rangers' Jaromir Jagr have words at center ice in the first period.


More worldly evidence contrary to Penguins' superiority was thus discounted, and it was faithfully verified when Adam Hall's clearing pass scurried like a field mouse into an empty net with 16.7 seconds left.

Hossa was 0 for 7 shooting the puck. Gonchar, Ruutu, and Crosby went a combined 0 for 10. Lundqvist had faced 31 shots and stopped 30, and New York's predicament only grew worse.

"I'm not going to suggest that it was really easy for [Fleury, who stopped everything]," said Renney, "but it certainly could have been tougher. I don't think we tested him enough. I think we need to make sure he has some screens to have to find the puck through."

Though the results might seem damaging to New York's confidence this morning, the fact is the Rangers have been right on the edge of everything necessary to be up two games rather than down two. It's now up to the Penguins to make sure the troubling atmospherics of the world's most famous arena do not shake their faith.

Gene Collier can be reached at gcollier@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1283.
First published on April 28, 2008 at 12:00 am

The defense has Fleury's back

Fleury has been star of postseason so far

By Ron Cook
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Monday, April 28, 2008



Matt Freed/Post-Gazette
Backup goalie Ty Conklin congratulates Marc-Andre Fleury after yesterday's 2-0 shutout victory against the Rangers at Mellon Arena. Fleury made 26 saves to improve to 6-0 in the playoffs.


They say big Penguins defenseman Hal Gill isn't exactly fleet of skate. You could have fooled me. He looked like Fast Willie Parker yesterday when he went after New York Rangers pest Sean Avery at the end of the Penguins' 2-0 win.

"He took a whack at [Marc-Andre] Fleury," Gill said. "I didn't think that was right."

The referees and linesmen stepped in quickly before things got ugly. That's probably a good thing for Avery. Penguins tough guy Georges Laraque also had made it to the scrum by that point.

"It's nice to know those guys have my back," Fleury said afterward. "I don't have to worry about that other stuff. I just have to play my game."

It's no wonder the Penguins are quick to protect Fleury.

Can you say Franchise Player?

That's what Fleury has been in these playoffs.

"He's been our best player since he came back," center Max Talbot said. "He's been the best goaltender in the league."

Mad Max gets no argument here.

Fleury is 6-0 this postseason and has stopped 153 of 162 shots.

But this shutout was about more than Fleury. The Rangers had 26 shots but precious few good scoring chances. As Rangers coach Tom Renney noted, "I'm not going to suggest that it was really easy for [Fleury], but it certainly could have been tougher."

Blame or credit for that depends on your perspective. Renney blamed his team for not moving the puck quicker. "When you've got it, you've got to go." Penguins coach Michel Therrien watched the same game and credited his club for playing "a really tight-checking game ... We have so many offensive weapons that people sometimes forget we can play that type of game."

Both Renney and Therrien had a point, but it's awfully hard not to like the Penguins' defensive work.

"I don't think we gave up an odd-man rush," defenseman Ryan Whitney said. "I can't remember one time when they had a two-on-one or a three-on-two. That's huge. You give those up, that's when you get in trouble."

Then, there was the Talbot perspective, which gets right to the point why these Penguins are starting to look a little more each day like a Stanley Cup team.

"It's nice to see us be able to win a game, 5-4, then, two days later, come back and win, 1-0," Talbot said.



Matt Freed/Post-Gazette
Penguins center Jordan Staal gets a hit along the boards on his brother, Marc Staal, in the second period.


If you were even remotely concerned that Fleury was shaken by having to fish four pucks out of his net in Game 1 Friday night, you shouldn't have been. On three of the four Rangers' goals, he had no chance. One hit off Penguins defenseman Sergei Gonchar's skate. Another was a deflection out of the air, perhaps with a high stick. A third was a blistering shot by center Scott Gomez off a sweet pass from Jaromir Jagr. Only a wrist shot by Avery -- he's a pretty good player when he isn't agitating -- could have been blamed on Fleury.

If anything, you should have been encouraged by how Fleury played in Game 1. He kept his cool after the Rangers jumped to a 3-0 lead in the second period and gave the Penguins a chance to come back and win.

"I had no doubt he would play really well today," Therrien said.

Neither did Fleury's teammates.

"We trust him," winger Jarkko Ruutu said.

"He's playing out of his mind," Whitney added. "Everything is hitting him right now."

Certainly, that was the case when Jagr broke free down the slot midway through the second period after taking a drop pass from linemate Martin Straka. Surely, the great Jagr would get a goal and give his team a momentum-changing 1-0 lead.

Not.

"I just tried to wait as much as I could," said Fleury, who turned away Jagr's wrister, seemingly effortlessly.

Said an appreciative Talbot, "That's the Fleury I want in net. That's the goalie I want in net."

As good as Fleury has been, it never hurts to be a little lucky, too. After Fleury stopped a shot by Rangers center Brandon Dubinsky with four minutes-and-change left in the game, Straka kept whacking at the rebound and appeared to score the tying goal.

There was only one problem for the Rangers: The referee behind the Penguins' net blew the play dead an instant earlier when he lost sight of the puck under Fleury.

"I thought it was an accurate call," Renney said, surprising diplomatic for a losing coach after a tough game.

The challenge figures to get tougher for the Penguins when the series resumes at Madison Square Garden with Game 3 tomorrow night. The saves figure to get tougher for Fleury. The Rangers will get more traffic in front of him, if Renney has his way. They'll get in his head, if Avery has his.

All concerned in the Penguins' dressing room yesterday were convinced that's what Avery was trying to do with that nonsense at the end.

"I don't see the point," Gill said, sniffing. "Fleury is pretty solid."

I'm going way out on a limb here to make a guess:

Gill and Laraque plan on seeing to it that Fleury stays that way.

Ron Cook can be reached at rcook@post-gazette.com.
First published on April 28, 2008 at 12:00 am

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Sykora answers call for Penguins over and over

'It took me about two minutes to decide this is where I wanted to be.'

By Ron Cook
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Sunday, April 27, 2008



Matt Freed/Post-Gazette
Malkin congratulates teammate Petr Sykora's third-period goal.


It's a good thing for the Penguins that Renata Sykora needed her precious rest when her husband tried to jostle her at 4 a.m. Czech Republic time July 1.

"Do you want to go to Pittsburgh?" he asked her.

"Let me sleep, please!" she groaned.

Petr Sykora took that as a yes.

A definite yes.

"I went across the hall and called my agent," Sykora recalled yesterday. "I said, 'Let's do this. Let's go to Pittsburgh.' "

There's almost certainly no truth to the rumor that Ms. Sykora awoke the next morning and gave her man the business. "You said we're going where??? Pittsburgh???" But even if she did, she's over it by now. The move to the Penguins has been terrific for Petr Sykora.

For the local hockey club, too.

Is there any free agent from last summer who is giving his team better per-dollar value than Sykora?

You can argue that Sykora's two-year, $5 million deal is the best of the many moves by Penguins general manager Ray Shero, who has constructed himself quite a Stanley Cup contender.

"I had a couple of options, and this wasn't one of them," Sykora said. "Then, the call from the Penguins came July 1. It took me about two minutes to decide this is where I wanted to be. I said, 'Forget everything else. I'm coming to Pittsburgh.'"

After getting the missus' blessing, of course.

OK, sort of.

"It didn't matter to me what the deal was going to be in Pittsburgh," Sykora said. "I was coming. I knew this was a team on the way up."

That was a big part of it, sure.

Sykora played seven seasons with the New Jersey Devils, won the Cup with them in 2000 and knows what a championship-caliber club looks like.

But Sykora also had his selfish reasons.

"I need to play with a center who can see the ice and move the puck," he said. "I knew they had Sid and Geno here."

Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.

For whatever reasons, Sykora didn't really work as the right wing on Crosby's line early in the season. But he has been pure magic with Malkin and left winger Ryan Malone. That comes as no surprise, really. Sykora and Malkin played well on the same line with the Metallurg Magnitogorsk team in the Russian Super League during the NHL lockout in 2004-05.

But as good as Sykora was in the regular season -- 28 goals and 35 assists -- he's been even better in the playoffs.

This newspaper has taken to doing break-out stats after each playoff game on what it calls the Penguins' Fantastic Four -- Crosby, Malkin, Marian Hossa and Marc-Andre Fleury. The boss might want to consider adding Sykora to the mix. Sykora leads the Penguins with four goals in their five post-season games, all wins.

No. 4 was huge in Game 1 against the New York Rangers Friday night. It gave the Penguins a 4-3, third-period lead in what became a 5-4 win. Like Sykora's three goals against the Ottawa Senators in Round 1, this one came after a perfect set-up pass by Malkin. All Sykora had to do was tap the puck into goaltender Henrik Lundqvist's net.

Feel free to say Malkin did the heavy lifting, if you must.

But give Sykora credit for being in the right place at the right time.

While you're at it, give Sykora credit for finishing.

If Hossa ever starts finishing as well, the Penguins will be darn near unbeatable.

"I'm not powerful," Sykora said. "I don't score goals by going behind the net and beating three guys or beating the defenseman around the corner and crashing the net. I have to rely on my shot, on being smart, on reading the play before it happens so I can get in position to score.

"Geno relates well to my way of thinking and my style of play."

Like all big-time goal scorers, Sykora frets about the ones he misses more than he enjoys the ones he scores. He hit a post behind Lundqvist late in the second period Friday night when the Penguins were trailing, 3-2.

"I still don't know how that happened," Sykora said. "In practice, when I have that much time, I put it in the top corner three out of four times. I must have thought about that shot for two hours after the game before I went to sleep."

Here's hoping Sykora didn't keep the wife up.

Ron Cook can be reached at rcook@post-gazette.com.
First published on April 27, 2008 at 12:00 am

Mendenhall makes perfect sense at No. 1 pick

By Bob Smizik
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Sunday, April 27, 2008



With a screaming need for offensive linemen, a crying need for defensive linemen and a somewhat lesser but still demanding needs for a wide receiver and an outside linebacker, the Steelers used their first pick in the NFL draft to select a running back -- a position already manned by a young Pro Bowl performer.

The Steelers are growing dangerously old on the defensive line. They lost their best player from an offensive line that was, at best, average. They lacked depth and future star power at wide receiver.

Yet yesterday they chose Rashard Mendenhall, a running back from Illinois, who, at least for now, figures to be nothing more than a caddy for Willie Parker, who led the NFL in rushing before breaking his leg in the first quarter of the 15th game last season.

It would appear to make no sense. Yet it makes perfect sense.

As much as the Steelers had other needs, they also had a distinct need at running back. They didn't need a player to back up Parker, they needed a player to share duties with Parker. The era of one back taking the vast majority of the carries is drawing to a close. In five years, people will look back on Jerome Bettis, the quintessential workhorse running back, as a relic.

More to the point, at 209 pounds, Parker is not built to take the pounding that comes with the 314 carries he had last season. That number would have swelled to about 350 if had not been injured. Parker, expected to be fully recovered by training camp, carried 337 times in 2006

This two-back wave of the future has spread across the NFL, and the Steelers saw it first hand in their two losses against the Jacksonville Jaguars. In the first game, 6-foot-1, 226-pound Fred Taylor gained 147 yards on 25 carries and 5-7, 211-pound Maurice Jones- Drew carried 12 times for 69 yards. Taylor, a Hall of Fame-bound veteran, provided inside power, but with the ability to go all the way. Jones-Drew was an exciting, young speedster.

The Steelers, although they're not saying as much today, see Parker as their Jones-Drew and Mendenhall, 5-10, 221 pounds who runs a 4.41 40-yard dash, as their Taylor.

The Super Bowl champion New York Giants are another team that went to the two-back system after superstar Tiki Barber, who had been getting almost all the carries, retired. Brandon Jacobs and Derrick Ward shared the running duties for the Giants.

The Steelers absolutely did not expect Mendenhall to be available when their turn came and, for once, this was not the biggest lie of draft day. Most mock drafts had Mendenhall, who ran for 1,681 yards and 17 touchdowns for Illinois last season, going in the mid-teens.

"He's an exciting running back," said director of football operations Kevin Colbert, who oversees the draft. "He runs with power, he runs with moves, he can catch."

It was generally believed the Steelers would go for an offensive or defensive linemen with their first choice. But, with seven offensive linemen and five defensive linemen already taken when their turn came, most of the best at those positions had been selected. That made Mendenhall all the more enticing.

The Steelers had not taken a running back in the first round since 1989, when they selected Tim Worley. In fact, the conventional wisdom is running backs can be found later in the draft and it's foolish to waste a first-round choice on one.

As draft guru Mel Kiper once noted, "I've been saying this for 30 years. The easiest position to find a player is running back."

So why Mendenhall in the first round?

"When you look back on last year," said Colbert, "once Willie was injured it was a difference, obviously. Willie Parker's a Pro Bowl running back, and, when you go from a Pro Bowl running back to anybody, there's going to be a drop off unless you have another Pro Bowl running back.

"Most successful teams have two productive running backs that they can count on. This one's a little bit bigger than Willie, so there may be some things that he can do to complement Willie, and that's only going to help us."

Coach Mike Tomlin, of course, isn't about to hand Mendenhall -- an unsigned rookie -- anything, let alone a significant bit of playing time.

"At this point, he's a young guy trying to fit in," said Tomlin. "He'll be backing up Parker."

That's the official company line as of today. Come the start of the 2008 season, expect to see a lot of Mendenhall and expect to see a lot of him for a long time.

Bob Smizik can be reached at bsmizik@post-gazette.com.
First published on April 27, 2008 at 12:00 am

Steelers give big present to Big Ben

By Ed Bouchette
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Sunday, April 27, 2008



Limas Sweed

Big Ben Roethlisberger finally has his big wide receiver.

Limas Sweed, who stands nearly 6 feet 4, became the Steelers' tallest wide receiver when they selected him on the second round of the draft yesterday. It fulfilled a wish Roethlisberger expressed in mid-January, when he said he would ask the team to add a tall receiver in the offseason.

"No doubt, man, I think I fit it," the Texas University product said last night. "A lot of people were saying he was looking for a big wide receiver and now he has one."

The Steelers not only had a first-round grade on Sweed, they ranked him among the top 25 players in the draft and the best three receivers. They used the 53rd pick of the draft to get him.

A big reason others may have shied away from Sweed is a wrist injury. That August injury required surgery Oct. 16 and it limited him to 19 catches last season after he caught 46 for 801 yards (17.4 average) and 12 touchdowns in 2006. He was not fully healed by the Senior Bowl, but he impressed the Steelers with his individual workout at Austin. All their medical tests judge him to be fully healed.

"We just couldn't understand why Limas was still out there," Steelers receivers coach Randy Fichtner said.

No receivers were drafted in the first round, and then they came off the board in clumps -- Sweed was ninth of 10 wide receivers selected in the second round.

"He can break tackles, he's still got size and probably a lot more room to get bigger,'' said Fichtner, mentioning the wrist injury limited his ability to lift weights. "But he definitely finishes on tape. When he catches a ball across the middle, there's a chance that he can take that and finish it, and the year prior to [last], he did it a lot."

Fichtner said the thought of having Sweed join his receiving corps "tickles you too death." He lumped Sweed with starters Santonio Holmes and Hines Ward when he said, "You're looking at a three-group that's really strong and a possibility of Nate Washington being four is really exciting."

"I love his range," Fichtner said. "The circle of catches is extremely large. The area of miss is big. He's got the longer arms. When we were down there [in Austin], he vertical jumped 36 or 37 [inches] compared to 33 or 34 at the combine. You couple that with the idea that he's almost 6-4, you're talking about a larger frame and target."

He's just what Ben Roethlisberger ordered.

First published on April 27, 2008 at 12:00 am

Steelers draft RB from Illinois, WR from Texas to protect Big Ben

By Ed Bouchette
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Sunday, April 27, 2008



John Dixon/Champaign-Urbana News-Gazette
Illinois running back Rashard Mendenhall: The first running back taken by the Steelers since 1989.


The absolutely, positively, largest need the Steelers had entering the draft -- everyone knew it -- was to protect their $102 million quarterback, Ben Roethlisberger.

A big offensive tackle would do the trick.

Or, how about a big, powerful, fast running back and a tall receiver Big Ben requested?

"There are two schools of thought to protect a quarterback," Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said. "You can get linemen, or you can get him weapons."

That's the plan, anyway, after the Steelers selected Illinois running back Rashard Mendenhall with the 23rd overall pick, and 6-foot-4 wide receiver Limas Sweed of Texas in the second round.

Mendenhall became the first running back they drafted in either of the top two rounds since 1989, and he truly was a player few expected to last that long -- most mock drafts had him gone by the middle of the first round.

As for Sweed, the Steelers not only had a first-round grade on him, they ranked him among the top 25 players available in the draft and among the best three receivers.

Mendenhall is power-packed at 5-10, 225 pounds, runs a blistering 4.41 in the 40-yard dash for a man his size and catches and blocks to boost.

He should provide the perfect compliment to Fast Willie Parker, a Mr. Inside and Mr. Outside, if you will. For the record, Tomlin said Parker, their two-time Pro Bowl back, remains No. 1.

Parker led the NFL in rushing last season when the fibula in his right leg was broken on his first carry in the 15th game. He finished with 1,316 yards, his third consecutive season above 1,200.

"We have a Pro Bowl running back," Tomlin said. "This guy's going to help our football team. At this point, he's a young guy trying to fit in. He'll be backing up Parker."

Ultimately, however, they could be No. 1 and 1-A on the depth chart, two talented backs on a team that has rushed for more yards than any other since the NFL merger with the AFL in 1970 (they ranked third last season). Tomlin has said since he arrived as head coach last year that teams need two effective backs. Now the Steelers appear to have them, and in contrasting styles as well.

"This is an exciting running back," said director of football operations Kevin Colbert, obviously delighted. "He'll run a sub-4.5, he runs with power, he runs with moves, he can catch, he'll work as a blocker. This is something that's very exciting for this organization."

Mendenhall ran for 1,681 yards last season, including 155 on just 17 carries against Southern California in the Rose Bowl (9.1 average). He averaged a whopping 6.4 per carry for the season.

Colbert said the Steelers had an idea to try to trade down in the first round, but had 15 players on a list in which they would draft at No. 23 regardless. Mendenhall was one of those players.

Much of the pre-draft speculation about possible running backs falling to the Steelers centered around Oregon's Jonathan Stewart and not Mendenhall because few believed Mendenhall would drop that far. As it was, running backs Darren McFadden (Oakland at No. 4), Stewart (Carolina at No. 13) and Felix Jones (Dallas at No. 22) went ahead of Mendenhall, who admitted to disappointment the longer he waited.

"It was tough, I ain't going to lie," Mendenhall said. "As it started rolling, the sweat started rolling as well."

Funny, he said, he felt he received less attention from the Steelers than he did many other teams. He spent some time with them at the combine workouts in Indianapolis, but he was not on the list of 30 candidates they were permitted to bring to Pittsburgh for further inspection before the draft.

In the end, "I feel like the Steelers made a great pick," said Mendenhall, who compared his style to NFL rushing champ LaDainian Tomlinson. "You look at his footwork and his agility, he's a real balanced runner. He can catch the ball and he can run you over as well, so I can make the comparison to L.T."

"He's fired up, needless to say," Tomlin said. "And so are we."

Parker said last week that he would like to see the Steelers draft another back, not only to help the team but to give him some rest and to lengthen his career.

"We need somebody else in here," Parker said. "If they bring somebody else in here, I'm all for it."

Besides breaking an 18-draft drought at the top by taking a running back, the Steelers also hope to snap a 36-year lack of success at drafting any in the first round who panned out. Since taking Hall of Famer Franco Harris in 1972, the Steelers drafted three other backs in the first round before yesterday. None topped 1,000 yards in a season.

By their reaction yesterday, the Steelers believe they got it right this time. Tomlin called him a "humble, blue-collar worker" and a "quality human being."

"In terms of what he brings to the table, he's a complete back," Tomlin said. "He can run inside, he can run outside. He's a powerful runner. He's elusive and, of course, he has the speed to go the distance.

"It shouldn't be too difficult finding ways that he can contribute to this football team."

First published on April 27, 2008 at 12:00 am

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Pens, Rangers put on a show

By Mike Prisuta
PITTSBURGH TRIBUNE-REVIEW
Saturday, April 26, 2008



The Penguins' Evgeni Malkin celebrates his game-winning goal in front of Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist late in the third period Friday, April 25, at Mellon Arena.
Christopher Horner/Tribune-Review


The occasion was such that on the eve of the NFL Draft, Steelers coach Mike Tomlin was among those filling the seats at Mellon Arena.

Tomlin didn't participate in the first-of-its-kind "Whiteout," but he kept his give-away T-shirt draped over his shoulder (perhaps trying to capture the spirit of the thing), even while signing a few autographs between periods.

The first round of the draft, apparently, could wait.

This was Penguins--Rangers.

Game 1 of what's anticipated to be a six- or seven-game struggle, one that might decide Eastern Conference supremacy, confirmed that the NHL's postseason has moved beyond the point where participation by the likes of the Ottawa Senators is permitted.

The Penguins somehow won it, 5-4.

Five or six more games of this will be as difficult to decide as they promise to be breath-taking in nature.



A shot by the Rangers' Chris Drury gets past Penguins goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury during the second period Friday, April 25, at Mellon Arena.
Christopher Horner/Tribune-Review


The talent amassed on both benches was such that the Rangers deployed forwards Brendan Shanahan, Scott Gomez and Chris Drury on their power-play unit -- their second power-play unit.

The Blueshirts' first unit was as familiar as it was lethal at 13:40 of the first period -- Martin Straka scoring off assists from Jaromir Jagr and Michal Rozsival.

The goal also was as playoff-ugly as they come -- Straka's centering feed deflected off the skate of Penguins defenseman Sergei Gonchar and past goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury -- and a reminder that such grandiose matchups aren't above being influenced by a deflection or a bounce.

The Rangers got another such fluke from Drury; the Pens got a Jarkko Ruutu ricochet off Rozsival.

Ruutu's gift sparked a two-goals-in-14-seconds uprising by the Pens.

A similar such outburst, third-period goals 20 seconds apart by Marian Hossa and Petr Sykora, confirmed that these Penguins have indeed evolved to the point where they don't fall apart when faced with a little adversity (a 3-0 deficit perhaps qualifies as more than "a little adversity," but you get the idea).



Penguins' Petr Sykora buries the puck behind Rangers goaltender Henrik Lundquist in the third period of game 1 Friday, April 25, at Mellon Arena.
Chaz Palla/Tribune-Review


The Rangers, likewise, are a serious enough bunch that they can hemorrhage a 3-0 lead and keep coming.

The skill was apparent, the grit everywhere.

It was one of those nights when neither team blinked. Not the Pens after they had allowed their third-period lead to dissipate, and not the Rangers after Straka was whistled for interference with 3:20 left in regulation.

Well, not until Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin helped untie it once and for all on the Penguins' first power-play goal of the evening and the only one they would need at 18:19 of the third.

The goal, initially credited to Crosby, had to withstand a replay review (as did Drury's near high-stick tip in the second) before being confirmed.

It was eventually deemed to have gone in off Malkin's knee or shin (the ever-popular lower-body game-winner), making the goal as appropriate as it was lustily celebrated inside and outside of Mellon Arena.



The Penguins' Sidney Crosby watches as New York goaltender Henrik Lundqvist can't stop a goal by Marian Hossa during the third period Friday, April 25, at Mellon Arena.
Christopher Horner/Tribune-Review


And still, the Rangers weren't officially finished until Gomez deflected a Jagr pass off the goalpost with 14.2 seconds remaining.

It's only the second round, but this is a whole new ballgame, one as compelling as it promises to be fiercely contested.

Tomlin won't be here Sunday afternoon; he has a prior commitment.

Is there any doubt he'll have a TV turned on in the "war room?"


Mike Prisuta is a columnist for the Tribune-Review. He can be reached at mprisuta@tribweb.com or 412-320-7923.