Lemieux finally set for return to lineup
Mario Lemieux’s return today won’t transform the NHL’s worst power play, at least not right away.
“It’s going to take some time,” Lemieux said. “It’s not going to happen overnight, obviously, but the more we practice it, the better we’re going to be.”
The Penguins have been good enough to convert an NHL-worst 9.2 percent of their power plays heading into this afternoon’s meeting with St. Louis. They also have been burned for an NHL-high eight short-handed goals entering Friday night’s action.
In response, the Penguins worked on the basics of playing with the man-advantage yesterday, in anticipation of Lemieux’s return. Lemieux positioned himself to the left of the net. Winger Jan Hrdina was opposite Lemieux. Center Robert Lang occupied the slot. Winger Alexei Kovalev and defenseman Ian Moran manned the points. They worked together five-on-none, passing the puck, communicating, shooting, occasionally even putting one past Jean-Sebastien Aubin.
“Puck movement is very important,” Lemieux said.
Just as significant is the issue of who winds up playing alongside Lemieux, who has missed 24 games in succession after his sooner-than-expected comeback from hip surgery was aborted after a three-game trial in mid-November.
“I might play with Hrdina, probably, on the left side, and try to find somebody on the right side,” Lemieux said.
Head coach Rick Kehoe said he was more in favor of leaving the Hrdina-Lang-Kovalev threesome in tact, and playing Dan LaCouture and Stephane Richer on either side of Lemieux.
“They’ve played pretty well,” Kehoe said. “I’d like to keep Hrdina with Lang and Kovy (Kovalev) and try to see if we can get another scoring line.”
Seeing as how Kehoe opened Thursday night’s 2-0 win at Buffalo with a threesome of defenseman Andrew Ference centering defensemen-turned-wingers John Jakopin and Josef Melichar, anything’s possible.
Those three players were on the ice together for only a matter of seconds. The rest of the time, the Penguins battled in a much more conventional matter and found a way to get a much-needed victory.
“Heddy (goaltender Johan Hedberg) was sharp and the guys just battled for the 60 minutes,” Kehoe said. “Hopefully, that’s something that will start it for us.”
Lemieux’s return can’t hurt either, as the Penguins look to put together a winning streak that will solidify them as contenders for a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.
“I think the speed of the game is going to be the big factor the first few games that I play; it’s always been in the past,” he said. “I just have to try to adjust as quickly as I can, try to keep my shifts a little bit short; don’t go too long. That’s going to be the key to my success.”
Keeping himself within a predetermined limit as far as minutes played hasn’t played a role in the past, and probably won’t be today.
“Usually it’s about 22, 25 minutes the first game I get back,” Lemieux said. “That’s always a concern the first couple games back, trying to keep it around 20. But as you know, the game goes on and I like to play a little more. I always end up around 25.
“Hopefully, I can get back and give the guys some confidence, some leadership in the dressing room. I’m pretty excited to have the chance to come back and try to help the team. I’m looking forward to it.”