Entering Saturday night’s contest at CONSOL Energy Center with Buffalo, the Penguins felt good about their chances. After all, the black and gold had dominated Lindy Ruff’s squad in recent seasons (15-4-1) and were riding a six-game winning streak against the Sabres to boot.
However, the Penguins shot themselves in the foot with a stinker of a first period. Coming off arguably their finest showing of the season in a losing cause to Washington, the home team looked sloppy and sluggish through the opening 20 minutes.
While the Pens struggled to get their shots on net, the Sabres pounced. Diminutive Nathan Gerbe opened the scoring for Buffalo at 9:24, swatting a juicy rebound past goalie Marc-Andre Fleury on the backhand. Six minutes later the Sabres cashed in again. Breaking in two-on-none, Thomas Vanek slipped a pretty pass to rangy Luke Adam, who beat a helpless Fleury with ease.
“We had a couple little breakdowns, gave them good chances,” James Neal said. “They capitalized.”
The Pens answered early in the second period thanks to a great effort by mighty mite Steve Sullivan. Showing tons of grit, the veteran winger outworked towering Tyler Myers in the left-wing corner. Richard Park scooped up the loose rubber and chipped a short pass to Neal, who was stationed along the sideboards. “The Real Deal” promptly caromed the puck off defenseman Robyn Regehr for his team-best fifth goal of the season.
Neal’s tally energized the Pens, who responded by carrying the play to the Sabres. Sullivan turned up the heat with a sensational shift midway through the period. On the ensuing rush Pascal Dupuis set up Chris Kunitz on a two-on-one break, but No. 14 drilled the puck wide of the Buffalo net. At the other end of the ice, Fleury made a sparkling paddle-down save on Jason Pominville to keep the Pens in the game.
The Sabres regained their two-goal edge at 8:06 of the final frame when Drew Stafford eluded defenseman Zbynek Michalek and blew the puck by Fleury ala Guy Lafleur. Once again the Pens battled back. Using his long reach to full advantage, Jordan Staal swept in a rebound of a Tyler Kennedy backhander at 15:05 to narrow the gap to 3-2. With Fleury pulled in favor of an extra attacker, Paul Martin (no goals in 55 games) unleashed a 10-footer from inside the right circle in the final minute of play, but Sabres goalie Jhonas Enroth came up with a big save.
“We know we have to score more,” Sullivan said after the game. “We know our defensive-zone coverage hasn’t been outstanding.”
The Penguins (3-1-2) suffered their first loss in regulation play … Evgeni Malkin missed his third game due to soreness in his right knee … The Pens recorded their 210th consecutive sellout on home ice … Neal earned the No. 3 star … The Pens out-shot the Sabres 31-28 (13-5 in the third period) … Pittsburgh has been outscored 14-8 in five-on-five play … Sidney Crosby participated in his first full-contact practice with no ill effects … Malkin, Steve MacIntyre, and Brooks Orpik were scratches.
The Penguins travel to Winnipeg to challenge the newly rechristened Jets on Monday night. The game marks their first visit to MTS Centre since February 16, 1996. The Pens lead the all-time series with the Jets (nee Atlanta Thrashers) 33-8-3.
*Be sure to check out Rick’s new book, “100 Things Penguins Fans Should Know and Do Before They Die” at TriumphBooks.com. It features 296 pages of bios, stories, anecdotes and photos from the team’s colorful past in a compelling, easy-to-read style. Whether you’re a die-hard booster from the days of Jean Pronovost or a big fan of Sid and Geno, this book is a must have for any true Penguins fan.
Don’t forget to check out Rick’s first book, “Total Penguins,” at TriumphBooks.com. A complete and comprehensive book on the team’s rich and storied history, it’s filled with season-by-season summaries, player profiles and stats, bios on coaches, general managers and owners, photos from the “Post-Gazette” archives, and much, much more.