What to Watch For: Pens vs. Sabres
The Buffalo Sabres, the Eastern Conference’s 13th place team, are hanging on by an ultra-thin thread in the race for the conference’s eighth and final playoff spot. Buffalo is three points behind the eighth-place New York Rangers, who hold two games in hand.
If the Sabres are going to make a late push for the postseason, their play will need to vastly improve immediately, starting Tuesday against the Penguins.
Buffalo’s attack depends on forward Thomas Vanek, who set the world on fire at the beginning of the season with 15 points (6G-9A) in seven January games, but has cooled off considerably as of late while battling injuries. He scored just six points (4G-2A) in March.
He was forced to leave during the Sabres’ 2-1 loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning March 26, a week after getting hurt in Buffalo’s 2-1 win over the Montreal Canadiens.
Vanek impressed in a Feb. 17 matchup with the Pens, scoring two points (1G-1A), but Buffalo lost a 4-3 decision. While he has been sidelined, the Sabres have struggled to replace his point total, leading to a 0-2-2 record in their last four games, capped by a 2-0 shutout against the Boston Bruins Sunday.
Coming off of a shutout might be an ominous sign for the Sabres as they enter CONSOL Energy Center. They will face a team that has earned three consecutive shutouts for the first time in franchise history and has cut its goals against average to just 2.33, good for fourth best in the NHL.
Buffalo has received some reinforcement from center Cody Hodgson, who was earned 11 points (4G-7A) in the last month. If the Sabres are to stay within striking distance of the Penguins Tuesday, they will most likely need Hodgson to rack up a few points since their defense has not been up to snuff this season.
Buffalo’s defense is ranked 25th in the NHL with a 3.00 GAA. Defensemen Christian Ehrhoff has done a solid job protecting the back line, holding a plus-10 rating, but is the only Sabres blueliner with a plus rating. Even with Sidney Crosby out indefinitely, Buffalo will need Andrej Sekera, Tyler Myers and its other blueliners to put on a top-notch performance in order to slow the league’s most explosive offensive unit (Monday the Sabres traded Robyn Regehr to Los Angeles for two second-round picks).
It also doesn’t help the Sabres that goalie Ryan Miller has struggled in net, at least relative to his past success, with a 2.89 GAA and .911 save percentage, both of which are not in the top 30 among NHL goalies.
The Penguins are one of the few teams to have Miller’s number in his career, as he holds a 5-11-3 record, 3.44 GAA and .881 save percentage against Pittsburgh. He picked up the loss in the teams’ lone matchup, allowing four goals.
Steve Ott - Cody Hodgson - Jason Pominville
Drew Stafford - Tyler Ennis - Ville Leino
Nathan Gerbe - Kevin Porter - Marcus Foligno
John Scott - Jochen Hecht - Patrick Kaleta
Christian Ehrhoff - Tyler Myers
Robyn Regehr - Andrej Sekera
Mark Pysyk - Mike Weber
SABRES: CODY HODGSON
Penguins center Sidney Crosby is recovering from surgery to repair his broken jaw. Paul Martin had surgery on his hand to fix a broken bone. Kris Letang is skating on his own, but there is not timeline for a return to practice with the team.
F Sidney Crosby, broken jaw
D Kris Letang, lower body
D Paul Martin, broken bone in hand
F Ville Leino, upper body
D Alexander Sulzer, lower body
F Corey Trop, knee
F Thomas Vanek, upper body
Author: Wes Crosby