PITTSBURGH -- The Pittsburgh Penguins are happy they've seen the last of Miami Arena's roaring, rat-throwing fans, whom winger Bryan Smolinski called "those screaming doofuses."
But because the Penguins couldn't also leave the Florida Panthers behind, their season has come down to one game, tonight at the Civic Arena for the Eastern Conference championship and a berth in the Stanley Cup finals against the Colorado Avalanche.
"It's beautiful, isn't it?" said Florida coach Doug MacLean. "That's all you want, a chance, and we've got a chance."
The Panthers prolonged their season when Rob Niedermayer scored with 6: 02 to play Thursday to clinch a 4-3 victory. Long after the last plastic rat was removed from the ice, the Penguins were shaking their heads.
"That was the big thing," said Pittsburgh's Joe Dziedzic. "We score to make it 3-3, and in the next minute and a half, they take the lead. That really took the wind out of our sails."
Said Penguin winger Dave Roche: "We knew it wasn't going to be easy. When a series goes this long, it just comes down to grit and determination."
"Hopefully, they'll be able to bust out," Penguins coach Ed Johnston said.
Johnston has played Lemieux and Jagr on the same line and has split them up, with little success either way. Lemieux has gone 251 minutes, 48 seconds without scoring over the past five games. Jagr has gone 266: 03 without a goal.
"Our forwards come back and force their guys into doing things they don't want to do. They don't give [Lemieux and Jagr] time to make plays," Florida defenseman Terry Carkner said.
The Panthers have also silenced the Pittsburgh power play, which had a league-leading 26 percent success rate this season. In this series, Pittsburgh is 3-for-28 (10.7 percent).
Each claims edges in other areas. The Penguins contend they're more accustomed to playoff pressure because they're 3-1 in seventh games since 1991.
The Panthers claim emotion is on their side, but Pittsburgh claims home-ice advantage. "The crowd is going to be behind us and that's going to be a big part of it. It will give us some momentum," Lemieux said.
Will that be enough to sink the buoyant Panthers?
"We are up for the challenge," Florida center Tom Fitzgerald said.
"I don't think at the beginning of the year anyone thought we'd be playing Game 7 of the semifinals of the Stanley Cup playoffs, but we're going to take advantage of it.
"A chance like this might never come again, and we're going to do all the little things we've done all year that got us to this point."
Pub Date: 6/01/96