Pittsburgh vs. Buffalo Preview
Monday, 12.28.2009 / 9:00 PM / Features
By Jason Seidling
Pittsburgh Penguins (26-12-1-53) vs. Buffalo Sabres (20-10-2-42)Where: HSBC Arena
When: Tuesday, December 29, 7 p.m.
Radio: WXDX Radio, FM 105.9
TV: FSN Pittsburgh, the game will be broadcast in HD, available on Armstrong 179, Atlantic Broadband 782, Citizen 737, Comcast 226/774, DISH 428, DirecTV 659 and Verizon Fios 576.
*View FSN's Broadcast Schedule here()
Season Series: Pittsburgh and Buffalo square off for the second time in an 11-day period, with both games coming at HSBC Arena. An up-and-down affair on Dec. 19 ended with the Penguins securing a 2-1 shootout victory thanks to a game-deciding goal off the stick of Kris Letang. Chris Kunitz had the lone Pittsburgh goal in regulation off a nifty feed out of the corner from Sidney Crosby. Marc-Andre Fleury made 31 saves in goal to record the victory.
|PENGUINS PROJECTED LINES||RELATED CONTENT|
Last Meeting: Dec. 19, 2009
PIT 2 - BUF 1 SO
|KEY TO VICTORY|
|Make Life Difficult on Miller: Ryan Miller is an early favorite in the Vezina Trophy race as he is having an unbelievable year statistically. The Penguins have proven in the past they can get pucks behind Miller. Traffic in front of the crease, players banging for rebounds and tip opportunities and getting Miller going side-to-side will be a key factor in getting pucks behind the all-star netminder.
Establish Zone Time: Getting the puck into the offensive zone and sustaining a forecheck is a key principle in the Penguins’ system. They have lost two of their past three games as New Jersey, Ottawa and Toronto spent a majority of those contests with the puck on their sticks in Pittsburgh’s defensive end. The Penguins have to keep the pressure in the attacking zone on a Sabres team which has allowed the second-fewest goals in the Eastern Conference.
LOWDOWN ON THE SABRES
|After missing the postseason in back-to-back seasons the Buffalo Sabres have spent almost the entire campaign atop the Northeast Division thanks to outstanding play between the pipes from Ryan Miller. Buffalo appeared poised to return to the postseason tournament last year but a high-ankle sprain to Miller dealt a severe blow to those dreams and the Sabres barely missed qualifying by finishing 10th in the Eastern Conference with 91 points. The Sabres made back-to-back trips to the Eastern Conference Finals in 2005-06 and ’06-07 before the defections of Chris Drury, Danny Briere and Brian Campbell weakened their offense.
Stability at the top is one of the primary reasons why the Sabres have been able to remain a playoff contender year-after-year despite playing in a small market. General manager Darcy Regier and head coach Lindy Ruff have been in charge with running the ship since the 1997-98 season. In that time the Sabres have made one Stanley Cup Final appearance in ’98-99, taken three trips to the conference finals and won one Northeast Division title (’06-07). A rash of injuries in the 2006 Conference Finals that devastated the Sabres blue line heading into Game 7 was possibly the only thing that kept Buffalo from getting past the Carolina Hurricanes to a second Cup Final that year. Ruff won the Jack Adams Award following the ’05-06 season and holds the Sabres team record with 461 career victories through Monday.
|As one of the smaller markets in the league and with much of their salary space tied into home-grown talent the Sabres do not venture into the free-agent market all too often and this offseason was no exception. Their only two moves this past summer were to bring grinder Mike Grier back for a second tour of duty along with the signing of defenseman Steve Montador away from the division-rival Boston Bruins.
Grier returns to Buffalo after spending the past three seasons with the San Jose Sharks. He spent a season and a half with the Sabres from ’03-04 to ’05-06, scoring eight goals and posting 31 points in 95 games. Grier has eight goals in 29 games and is one of the top penalty-killing forwards on Buffalo’s roster. Montador plays bigger than his 6-foot, 211-pound frame in the defensive zone and has underrated puck skills in the offensive end. While he won’t wow you with his offensive ability, Montador has picked up 11 points (2G-9A) in 38 games after registering 21 points (4G-17A) in 78 games last season split between the Bruins and the Anaheim Ducks.
Two rookies have stepped into the lineup and supplied production that has exceeded preseason projections. Defenseman Tyler Myers, a first-round selection in 2008, has more than replaced the offense lost due to the departures of Jaroslav Spacek and Teppo Numminen. The 19-year-old rearguard is tied with Michael Del Zotto of the New York Rangers among rookie blueliners with 20 points (3G-17A) while his plus-7 rating ranks second (tied) on the Sabres. What Tim Kennedy lacks in size at 5-foot-9, 176 pounds, he more than makes up for in production. Kennedy has 13 points (4G-9A) in 38 games to complement a defensive game which is advanced for a 23-year-old rookie center. Kennedy has assists in two straight games since being reunited on a unit with Grier and Thomas Vanek.
|Buffalo is not one of the higher scoring teams in the NHL but they do get consistent production up and down the lineup. Eight different players have scored seven or more goals for the Sabres led by 11 for Thomas Vanek. A two-time 40-goal scorer who has averaged 39.5 goals the past three seasons, Vanek is on pace for only 26 tallies this year, which would represent the lowest total of his five-year career. Vanek did not dress against the Penguins in the last meeting. Center Tim Connolly, who has missed almost two full seasons during his career due to concussions, is healthy this season and the playmaking extraordinaire trails only Derek Roy among Sabres with 28 points (9G-19A) while dressing for all 38 games.
Right winger Jason Pominville has been a consistent point producer for the Sabres since breaking into the league in ’05-06 and he has never scored less than 18 goals. Pominville has nine goals through 38 games, including one against the Penguins in the first meeting, and he leads the team with 108 shots. A pair of 24-year-old wingers, Clarke MacArthur, whose 10 goals are second-best on the team, and Drew Stafford, who lit the lamp 20 times last season, are emerging power forwards who are not afraid to park their bodies in front of the net and work for dirty goals. They will give the Penguins a net-front presence to deal with, particularly when Buffalo goes on the man-advantage. Each has three power-play goals.
Buffalo received a boost the first time they played the Penguins with the return of third-line center Paul Gaustad to the lineup. Gaustad is defensively responsible yet has enough offensive talent to score between 25-35 points per season. Gaustad has seven goals in 26 games and is one of the top faceoff men in the league. Expect Gaustad and Sidney Crosby to go head-to-head on a majority of the in-zone faceoffs. The presence of Mike Grier, Patrick Kaleta and Adam Mair on the Sabres’ bottom-two lines makes Buffalo a hard team to play against as all three are more than willing to take the body to separate the man from the puck. They rank 1-3 on the team in hits through Monday. Kaleta has also shown a decent scoring touch with six goals in 31 games.
|There are not many household names on the Buffalo defensive corps but as a whole they play tough, physical defense and each have more than enough skill to get the puck ahead to the Sabres’ fast collection of offensive talent. Veteran Henrik Tallinder is the best of the bunch and currently leads the team with a plus-8 rating in 38 games. Known as more of a defensive presence, Tallinder has chipped in 10 points (2G-8A). He is a top penalty killer who supplies a good first pass from his zone. He has spent his entire professional career in Buffalo. Ranking right up there with Tallinder is captain Craig Rivet, acquired from the San Jose Sharks at the outset of last season. Big and mobile, Rivet is the top two-way defender on the Buffalo roster with 24 or more points in four consecutive seasons and 56 penalty minutes which rank second on the team behind Patrick Kaleta’s 71. Rivet handles both power-play and penalty-killing chores for Buffalo. Andrej Sekera, a Slovak native, is an up-and-coming No. 3/4 defenseman who handles some power play minutes for the Sabres. He has a powerful slap shot from the point and has six points (2G-4A) in 28 games.
A couple of youngsters, Tyler Myers and Chris Butler, look like defensive anchors to take the Sabres into the next decade. Only 19, Myers reminds scouts of a younger version of Boston’s Zdeno Chara with his 6-foot-7 frame and offensive skills. Myers is much further along than Chara was at this age and thus far has kept improving his play rather than hit the rookie wall. Myers leads the Sabres in average time on ice at 22:58 per game. Butler, 23, spent 47 games with the Sabres last season after three seasons with the University of Denver. He posted a plus-11 rating in those games. Butler recently returned from an ankle injury which had sidelined him since the beginning of December. He has 10 assists in 26 games while only Myers spends more time on the ice than the 20:39 averaged by Butler.
|Buffalo skates into this matchup tied with the Phoenix Coyotes as the third-stingiest team in the NHL surrendering only 87 goals in 38 games. The chief reason has been the play of all-star goaltender Ryan Miller. Prior to Monday’s games Miller leads the league with a .935 save percentage, trails only Martin Brodeur, Marc-Andre Fleury and Ilya Bryzgalov in wins with 21, ranks second only to Tuukka Rask with a 1.98 goals-against average and has four shutouts.
A five-time 30-game winner, Miller has not only thrust himself to the top of Vezina Trophy lists but his play has also vaulted him to the position of leading candidate to start for the United States at the 2010 Olympic Games. Miller is extremely quick and athletic for a 6-foot-2 netminder and his solid positioning rarely exposes holes for shooters to aim. Sometimes the only way to get pucks behind Miller is with traffic in his crease or quick puck movement to get him going side-to-side.
Miller is backed up by former Penguin Patrick Lalime, who broke into the league in Pittsburgh in 1996-97 and subsequently ran off an NHL-record unbeaten streak of 16 consecutive games (14-0-2) to begin his career. Lalime started against the Penguins on Dec. 19 and made 23 saves in a 2-1 shootout loss. For the season he is 2-2-1 with a 2.91 goals-against average and a .904 save percentage. A butterfly goaltender, Lalime spent his best years in Ottawa where he posted four-straight 25-win seasons between 2000-01 and ’03-04.
PLAYER SPOTLIGHT: MIKE GRIER
|Mike Grier has given the Sabres a nice return on their offseason investment during his second tour of duty with the team. A two-time 20-goal scorer with the Edmonton Oilers at the beginning of his career, Grier will take a crack at setting a new personal high as he has eight goals through his first 29 games.
Buffalo might be surprised at the offensive output they are receiving from Grier but in terms of his all-around game they are getting exactly what they expected from the 34-year-old winger. In addition to being a top penalty killer he ranks second on the team with 46 hits as he enjoys a physical game in the corners and along the boards.
|- Leading scorer Derek Roy is day-to-day with an upper body injury and is expected to miss the game against Pittsburgh.
- Patrick Kaleta is day-to-day after suffering a leg injury during Sunday’s game.
- Winger Nathan Gerbe has been out of the lineup since Dec. 11 with a strained groin.
|"THEY SAID IT"|
|"I don't think you can say enough about the way Michael played, penalty killing-wise and five-on-five."
- Sabres head coach Lindy Ruff speaking to Yahoo! Sports on the play of Michael Grier in a 5-3 victory over the St. Louis Blue on Sunday. Grier scored twice and added an assist to give him five points in his last three games.
|POINT OF INTEREST
|28: In 21 games at HSBC Arena the Sabres have compiled a 12-5-4 record as their 28 home points trail only the 29 points earned by the Ottawa Senators among Eastern Conference teams.
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Author: Jason Seidling
Author: Jason Seidling