The Last Word

AL STRACHAN -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 8:47 AM ET

It was a different kind of Pittsburgh Penguins team that the Maple Leafs faced last night.

It was grittier than usual, a little more composed, and positionally improved.

Even though the Penguins were far from flashy, for a long time, they gave the impression that they might bend but not break, hold off the Leafs, and ride an early goal to a victory.

But eventually, the Leafs, who kept firing at Pittsburgh goalie Jocelyn Thibault until they finally got some results, wore them down and came away with a 3-2 overtime victory.

The Penguins are the worst team in the East, even trailing the abysmal Washington Capitals, but now that Michel Therrien has taken over as coach, they're showing some signs of competence.

REPUTATION

Therrien has a reputation as a disciplinarian, and as soon as he took over from Ed Olczyk less than three weeks ago, he quickly lived up to his advance billing.

The Pittsburgh franchise is a notorious National Hockey League country club, but Therrien soon changed the lifestyles of the rich and famous.

Instead of driving themselves to the suburban practice rink, which is near most of their homes, the players had to fight traffic to the downtown Mellon Centre, change into their hockey togs, board a bus for the suburbs, practice hard for 90 minutes, take the bus back downtown, change, and then drive home again.

Therrien not only worked on the team's basic skills, he had the players battling one-on-one along the boards and between sessions, doing pushups.

As a result, the Penguins are playing better hockey. It's not as exciting as it used to be during its better moments, but it may be more effective.

"It's starting to get better, but there's still some work to do," Penguins veteran Mark Recchi said. "We were fortunate to get away with a point (last night), but we're competing a bit harder and the guys who aren't competing aren't going to play."

We have a lot of work to do, but hopefully we can get something going before the Olympic break, and then we'll come back after the break. It'll be an uphill battle."

Like Jacques Lemaire in Minnesota and Ken Hitchcock in Philadelphia, Therrien has realized that the flash-and-dash style of the new NHL can be productive if you have the right players. But if you don't, the defence-first style still works.

Hitchcock has the luxury of playing offensively when his team is healthy, but when it isn't -- which has been most of the year -- he falls back on the tried-and-true methods.

In the Penguins' case, Therrien simply doesn't have the firepower, despite the presence of Sidney Crosby. So he has demanded that the veterans, the kids, the fill-ins and the phenoms all play the same way.

But the burning question is this: Can they keep on doing it once Mario Lemieux comes back?

There are reasons this team is such a country club. And Lemieux is one of them.

If he had been in practice last week, would he have been engaged in one-on-one battles? Would he have been doing pushups?

His supporters would say that with his stature, Lemieux shouldn't have to. And that's fine. That case can be made.

But the fact remains that if one person on the team doesn't buckle down, the others, to varying degrees, start to resent it and reduce their own efforts accordingly.

If Lemieux does come back soon -- and there is increasing speculation that he won't -- how will Therrien's status be affected?

Lemieux is the owner. He is the captain. He is the de facto general manager. And in many ways, he also is the coach.

Under Olczyk, he decided when he would go on the ice and when he wouldn't. On some occasions, Olczyk must have had other ideas. But he didn't pursue them.

When the inevitable disagreement between Lemieux and Therrien surfaces, who will get his way? How will the other react?

And make no mistake. There will be disagreements. Therrien's style of hockey is not Lemieux's style.

Therrien's Penguins aren't very entertaining on the ice. But once Lemieux returns, they may be entertaining off it.


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