What to Watch For: Pens vs. Sabres
Thursday, 03.29.2012 / 5:00 PM ET / Features
By Michelle Crechiolo
WHEN: March 30, 2012 - 7:30 pm | WHERE: First Niagara Center
WATCH: ROOT SPORTS | LISTEN: Penguins Radio 24/7, 105.9 FM
When the Penguins last played the Sabres on Feb. 19, Buffalo was dead last in the Eastern Conference and nine points out of a playoff spot – meaning they’d need to orchestrate a remarkable turnaround to even consider a postseason berth.
Well, they’ve done just that.
Buffalo has gone 14-2-3 since topping Pittsburgh that day and 7-0-2 in its last nine games. And the Sabres earned their season-high fifth straight win by trouncing Washington, 5-1, on Tuesday in a critical showdown as the two clubs entered the game tied in the standings. And with the statement victory, Buffalo now has a two-point cushion on eighth place in the East.
The Sabres were actually 10 points out of the playoffs on Feb. 17, two days before they hosted Pittsburgh. They’re putting themselves in position to become just the second team in NHL history to overcome a 10 point deficit this late in the season, after the New York Islanders rallied from a 10-point hole on Feb. 18, 1994 to snag eighth place in the conference.
Goalie Ryan Miller had an uncharacteristically shaky first half, piecing together a 12-15-2 record, a 3.07 goals-against average and a save percentage of .899 before the All-Star break – not to mention dealing with a concussion/neck injury after being steamrolled by Boston’s Milan Lucic back in November.
But Miller has since turned his season around to be the cornerstone of his team’s surge. He has been absolutely red hot for the Sabres, going 14-1-3 in his last 18 games, 8-0-2 in his last 10 and allowing just three goals in his last four outings.
And the players in front of Miller have been piecing together a total team effort. On Tuesday, Cody McCormick became the 30th player to score a goal for the Sabres this season – which ties Buffalo’s franchise record, set in 1986-87 and matched in 1987-88 and 1991-92.
The Sabres’ top-two goal scorers this season are Jason Pominville and Thomas Vanek. But the line that’s been the most productive for Buffalo as of late is Tyler Ennis, Drew Stafford and Marcus Foligno, as the trio has combined for 17 goals and 37 total points in the last nine games. Foligno has six of those tallies and four assists in eight games since being recalled from the minors, while fellow rookie Cody Hodgson has six points (3G-3A) in four games after registering no points in his first 10 appearances with the Sabres after being acquired from Vancouver at the trade deadline.
While the Sabres are riding high, Tuesday’s win was tempered by the loss of defenseman Christian Ehrhoff. Sabres head coach Lindy Ruff said Wednesday the team’s leader in minutes-played would be out for “a period of time” and declined to give any further details. Pittsburgh native Mike Weber will take his spot in the lineup.
SABRES: RYAN MILLER
Goalie Ryan Miller has recovered from an uncharacteristically shaky first half and is playing some scary good hockey right now. Miller has gone 14-1-3 in his last 18 games, 8-0-2 in his last 10 and has allowed just three goals in his last four outings. But you can slice his numbers any way you want. No matter which way you list them, Miller has been playing at an elite level for a long period of time. It’s that simple. But that being said, Miller has been shouldering an intense workload for Buffalo since the All-Star break. He’s appeared in 30 of the Sabres’ last 31 games and will likely start their five remaining contests. He’ll also be facing a team on Friday that he hasn’t fared well against for whatever reason throughout his career (5-9-3, 3.37 GAA, .881 svpt). It will be interesting to see if Miller can sustain such a high level of play throughout the rest of the season, starting with this Penguins squad.
PENGUINS: SIDNEY CROSBY
If anyone can crack the seemingly invincible Ryan Miller, Sidney Crosby would be a good candidate. Crosby’s scored some big goals on Miller during the regular season, but seems to solve the Sabres netminder on the biggest stages – i.e., the 2010 gold medal game and the inaugural Winter Classic. Granted, those are in the past, but Crosby does seem to have Miller’s number whenever the two meet. Going back to the present, Crosby wasn’t happy after the team’s back-to-back losses to the Islanders. Look for the captain, who is just three points shy of becoming the sixth player in franchise history to reach 600 points, to lead the charge for the Penguins Friday.
The Penguins are hoping to avoid losing three straight regulation games for just the second time this season Friday. Earlier this year, the Penguins lost a season-high six-straight regulation contests from Dec. 29-Jan. 11.
Pittsburgh needs a win Friday to avoid losing the season series against the Sabres for the first time since going 0-2-2 in 2005-06. The Penguins have gone 6-3 in their last nine visits to HSBC Arena. Overall, the Penguins have gone 16-6-1 in their last 23 meetings with the Sabres.
Pascal Dupuis has a chance to establish the NHL’s longest point streak of the season Friday. Dupuis, whose 12-game point streak is the NHL’s longest active streak, is currently tied with Carolina’s Eric Staal and the NY Islanders’ John Tavares for the longest point streak of the season. Dupuis has notched 15 points (9G-6A) during his streak.
Evgeni Malkin, who leads the NHL scoring race by nine points over Tampa Bay’s Steven Stamkos, became the first NHL player this season to reach the century mark when he notched his 47th goal and 100th point yesterday against the Islanders.
Malkin has notched at least one point in nine of his last 10 games, during which he has collected nine goals and 19 points for an average of 1.9 points per game. Malkin has had two-plus points in six of the 10 games. Malkin carries a three-game point streak (2G-3A) into tonight’s contest.
Buffalo’s line of Tyler Ennis, Drew Stafford and Marcus Foligno has combined for 17 goals and 37 total points in the last nine games. Foligno has 10 points (6G-4A) in eight games since his recall on March 9. Prior to this recall, Foligno had only played one NHL game. Only five other active players have scored six or more goals in their first nine career games: Teemu Selanne (8), Evgeni Malkin (8), Devin Setoguchi (7), Ilya Kovalchuk (6) and Alex Ovechkin (6).
Ennis has 22 points (8G-14A) in his last 21 games. The Sabres are 14-1-5 when Ennis records a point this season and 41-9-9 when he tallies a point in his career. Stafford has 12 points (4G-8A) in his last eight games.
Cody Hodgson is on pace to play 83 games this season, including 48 on the road. According to Elias Sports Bureau, Hodgson’s 48 road games in one season would be an NHL record. The current record is 47, held by Darryl Sydor (1995-96) and Niklas Hagman (2005-06). The most road games by a player who spent part of the season in Buffalo is currently 46 (Mike Foligno, 1981-82).
The Penguins had some good news Friday afternoon as defenseman Matt Niskanen, who missed the last four games with an upper-body injury, will be back in the lineup against the Sabres. Also, goalie Brent Johnson will be making his first start since Feb. 19 - which also occurred in Buffalo.
Defenseman Kris Letang did not make the trip to Long Island and Buffalo with the team. He is day-to-day with a lower-body injury.
Forward Joe Vitale (upper-body) continues to practice but hasn't been cleared to rejoin the lineup.
D Kris Letang, lower body (2)
D Ben Lovejoy, knee (2)
F Joe Vitale, upper-body (7)
F Matt Ellis, knee (8)
F Nathan Gerbe, upper body (7)
F Jochen Hecht, concussion (29)
Author: Michelle Crechiolo