Penguins, Sabres look to close ground in divisions
SABRES (33-18-9) at PENGUINS (36-22-4)
Buffalo 3-5-2; Pittsburgh 5-2-3
The Penguins lead the season series, 2-1, after beating the Sabres, 5-4, on Feb. 1 at Mellon Arena.
As both the Penguins and Sabres resume play following the NHL's two-week Olympic break, the two men involved in the most iconic image from the hockey tournament in Vancouver won't be seeing each other again just yet. With Buffalo netminder Ryan Miller getting the day off after a grueling run in British Columbia, he will have to wait for another chance to settle the score with Sidney Crosby
Coach Lindy Ruff believes Buffalo's man between the pipes has earned a respite and it's hard to argue with his logic. Miller compiled a 5-0-1 record in Vancouver, earning the tournament's MVP honors to go with his 1.35 goals-against average and .946 save percentage. With Miller on the bench, the task in goal is the responsibility of Patrick Lalime Tuesday night. The 13-year veteran has struggled for much of this season, going 3-3-2 with a 3.21 GAA and .896 save percentage.
While Lalime hasn't won since keeping these same Penguins off the board on Dec. 29, the Sabres could use a strong performance from the man who once carried Ottawa to four straight playoff appearances. The Sabres lost five straight games before knocking off the Sharks in their final outing before pausing for the Vancouver Games, a skid that has dropped them behind the surging Senators in the Northeast race. Buffalo trails by just one point and has three games in hand, but with just 22 games left, the Sabres must start to turn the corner if they're to stay in what is looking to be a dog fight with their Canadian rivals.
The Olympic break may have come at just the right time for the Penguins, who had lost four of their last five games before the two-week interlude. With Crosby likely flying high after lifting Canada to gold with his overtime winner Sunday, Pittsburgh will need him to carry the momentum to the NHL slate, as the Pens are locked up in a tight division race of their own. Pittsburgh is one point behind New Jersey in the Atlantic Division, and with the Devils holding an extra game left on the schedule, every chance to gain ground is crucial.
Pittsburgh could sorely use a return to Stanley Cup-winning form by its own goaltender. Marc-Andre Fleury
lost four of his last five games before the break, but after dressing just once and not seeing the ice for Team Canada, he should be plenty rested as the Pens gear up for the season's home stretch and take another run at Lord Stanley.
In addition to his game-winner on Sunday in Vancouver, Crosby had been among the League's hottest players before the break. The Kid scored five goals in his last four games, tying him with Washington's Alex Ovechkin for the NHL lead with 42. His teammate Evgeni Malkin
may be equally as worthy of the spotlight. The Russian center has 22 points over a current 13-game streak. … For Buffalo, Derek Roy has three goals in his last three games.
Patrick Kaleta is probable for Buffalo despite a bruised foot, while the Pens may be without Ruslan Fedotenko, who is questionable for undisclosed reasons, in addition to Eric Godard
and Maxime Talbot
who are both out with groin injuries.
It's possible that Miller's day off may not simply be a rest-oriented move by Ruff. Miller lost his first of two starts against Pittsburgh this season and was pulled after 22 minutes in his second. In that second start it was Lalime who backstopped the Sabres to a come-from-behind win against the Penguins.
One could argue that Miller not starting has distilled some pregame excitement so soon after Sunday's gold medal game, but Ruff's decision to sit his starter for the night just might remove some of the attention and allow his players to focus without any excess media glare. With both Pittsburgh and Buffalo locked up in tight division races, any advantage over the season's final six weeks can't be overlooked.