PITTSBURGH – The 2013 Stanley Cup Playoffs seem like a distant memory right now for Pittsburgh Penguins goalie Marc-Andre Fleury.
Fleury stopped 20 of 21 shots Saturday night, leading the Penguins to a 4-1 victory against the Buffalo Sabres at Consol Energy Center.
Pittsburgh's Sidney Crosby and Chuck Kobasew each scored their second goals of the season. Buffalo forward Thomas Vanek ended Fleury’s attempt at a second consecutive shutout with 4:56 left in the game.
“We like our chances if we keep getting those opportunities,” Crosby said. “We didn’t allow a lot of shots against, too, and that’s a big thing. It would’ve been nice to keep it at no score there, but that was a nice goal by Vanek and we’ll keep trying to keep pucks out of our net.”
Fleury’s play was one of the Penguins’ question marks entering the season. While he hasn’t been greatly tested through the first two games – outside of the third period in Pittsburgh’s 3-0 win against the New Jersey Devils on Thursday – he has made timely saves, stopping 47 of the 48 shots he’s faced in two games, and has allowed the Penguins to keep leads they’ve established in the first period.
“Marc wasn’t busy in the first half of the game in game one; it was under 10 shots I think for most of that game. But he was tested and he was real solid,” Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said. “But I think the way our team’s played defense [has helped him] and he’s been up to the task on a few occasions where it’s been difficult.
“Tonight he didn’t see a ton, 21 shots, but just the calmness in net. He’s been solid and in control.”
Pittsburgh’s defense has been impressive in its first two games without injured defenseman Kris Letang (lower body). Its strong performance also allowed the Penguins to control the puck and create scoring chances early, much like it did against New Jersey.
“I think since last year, our [defensive] focus has been there a lot more,” Fleury said. “I think today, they [the Sabres] didn’t really get too much. Even on their power plays, our penalty kill was great. It’s not always in the defensive zone too … like we had the puck and controlled the game and we were in their zone. So, they didn’t get to come on our side too much.”
Matt Niskanen played well on both ends, as he assisted each of the Penguins’ first-period goals and is one shy of 100 assists for his career.
Crosby, who has earned a point in 15 consecutive games against the Sabres since Dec. 29, 2007, opened the scoring when he corralled Pascal Dupuis’ backhanded shot in front of the net and beat Buffalo goalie Jhonas Enroth 3:39 into the game. Kobasew scored his second goal of the season 6:24 later.
The Penguins cycled the puck in Buffalo’s zone before eventually passing it back to Brandon Sutter at the point. Sutter fired a slap shot that was deflected by Kobasew past Enroth to give Pittsburgh a 2-0 lead entering the first intermission for the second time in as many games this season.
Pittsburgh’s trio of Jussi Jokinen, Evgeni Malkin and Beau Bennett gave the Sabres problems despite failing to score a goal. Malkin gelled with his linemates, even with forward James Neal out with an upper-body injury.
His best chance came 1:17 into the second period when Bennett found him alone between Buffalo’s faceoff circles. Malkin barely missed giving the Penguins a 3-0 lead, as his slap shot rung off the right post.
A day after Ryan Miller was handed a loss despite surrendering one goal on 46 shots to the Ottawa Senators, Enroth stopped 31 of 34 shots and played well enough to keep the Sabres in the game until Kunitz’s goal. But Buffalo’s offense came up short again, especially on the power play.
“We lost three straight games and obviously we’re frustrated,” Enroth said. “I don’t think I made any mistakes. I played solid and I didn’t give up big rebounds and stuff like that, so I felt good today.
“Obviously, we need to score more and the guys are doing their best. We have a couple really good players on this team, too, so I’m sure they’re going to start scoring a couple of goals here in the next couple of games.”
The Sabres are now 0-for-13 on the man-advantage and have scored two goals through three games this season. They failed to convert on two power play chances against Pittsburgh.
“We didn’t generate a lot tonight,” Sabres coach Ron Rolston said. “We just have to be a lot simpler than we were tonight. We pass up opportunities when we do get them and I thought they [the Penguins] played really well.”