Unfortunately for the Buffalo Sabres, the real Sidney Crosby showed up Friday night.
After being held off the scoresheet as Pittsburgh was swept in a home-and-home series by the Islanders this week, Crosby had a goal and three assists as the Penguins beat Buffalo 5-3, knocking the Sabres out of eighth place in the Eastern Conference playoff race.
"They were a desperate team and we had to make sure we were playing desperate as well,” Crosby said of the Sabres. “I thought we did a really good job of that.”
Penguins coach Dan Bylsma agreed that the Penguins played with the kind of urgency they lacked in the back-to-back losses against the Islanders.
“I thought right from the start, we knew we were in for a game,” he said. “Buffalo played extremely hard. … The speed of the game really had a playoff-type of feel out in the building. I thought our team responded really well to that. They played really hard.
“It was the best game we had on the forecheck and in the offensive zone. We really had a physical impact on the game. Our power play comes up with two big goals. It was a really good game for us in a tough building, with tough bounces and in tough situations. A hard-fought game.”
Crosby scored late in the first period to give the Penguins a 2-1 lead and set up goals by Evgeni Malkin, James Neal and Steve Sullivan for his best performance since returning on March 15 after missing more than three months with concussion symptoms. Neal's power-play goal at 11:43 of the second period broke a 2-2 tie and Sullivan's tally at 15:06 proved to be the winner.
"He makes good plays and his linemates worked well with him," Buffalo goaltender Ryan Miller said of Crosby, who also took a puck in the face Thursday night on Long Island and missed a chunk of the second period. "They're a good skating team, and they have two really good lines. Tonight he made some good plays."
Brent Johnson, returning after missing 17 games due to an undisclosed injury, made 25 saves. He survived a late power play after Malkin was called for delay of game with 2:21 left in regulation before Jordan Staal slid the puck into an empty net with less than five seconds left.
The win gave the Penguins a four-point lead on Philadelphia in the race for fourth place -- and home-ice advantage in the first round in the likely event that the teams play each other. The Penguins stayed five points behind the New York Rangers in the race for the top spot on the East; both teams have four games remaining.
"It's not as easy as just having one game and thinking you're there, it's a process," Crosby said. "You just try to take everything in stride, whether you have a good one or a bad one and try to get better."
The loss ended Buffalo's five-game winning streak; more important, it dropped the Sabres out of the last playoff spot in the conference. Buffalo and Washington both have 86 points with four games remaining, but the Capitals have the tiebreaker with five more non-shootout wins. Buffalo visits Toronto on Friday while Washington hosts Montreal.
"You got to put it behind you," Sabres coach Lindy Ruff said, already looking ahead to the game at Toronto.
Miller, whose goaltending has fueled the Sabres' rise from last place in the last six weeks ago, stopped 29 saves.
"It was just one of those nights -- we haven't had many in this stretch -- where we didn't have it," Miller said. "You can't get too down. Our mentality has been playoff for a while now. We have to put this behind us. We're going to have to regroup and have our best game."
NHL scoring leader Evgeni Malkin quieted the sellout crowd of 18,690 at the First Niagara Center by putting the Penguins on the board with a power-play goal just 3:50 into the game. Buffalo defenseman Jordan Leopold tied it by flipping a shot out of a scramble and past Johnson at 6:35.
Crosby gave the Penguins their second lead with his fifth of the season at 12:52, putting a rebound through the five-hole on Miller, but Buffalo got even again less than three minutes later when Tyler Ennis was left wide-open and beat Johnson for his 13th.
Neal tapped home Crosby's pass his career-high 38th of the season and League-high 17th power-play goal to put the Penguins ahead for the third time. The point was the 600th of Crosby's career, making him the seventh-youngest player to score 600 points -- and the youngest since Pierre Turgeon did it with the Islanders in 1994. He also reached the milestone in the seventh-lowest number of games (430).
“I didn’t really realize I was getting close to that until the last few days,” Crosby said with a smile. “So good to get it and I’ll just move on.”
Since returning to the lineup on March 15, Crosby has 17 points (three goals 14 assists) in 10 games. He has had multiple points in six of the 10 games.
"He's the greatest thing I've ever seen," Johnson said. "Coming back the way he has is just fantastic. He's priceless."
Sullivan made it a two-goal game just over three minutes later by chopping home Pascal Dupuis' rebound. Dupuis finished with two assists, extending his points streak to 13 games, the longest in the NHL this season.
Buffalo's Thomas Vanek cut the deficit to 4-3 at 16:59 on a fluke goal -- a Pittsburgh clearing pass took a funny bounce off a stanchion and disappeared into the air, only to land on the stick of a wide-open Vanek in front of the net. He made a quick deke and beat a helpless Johnson for his 26th of the season.
The Sabres had chances in the third period but couldn't convert. Vanek had a pair of excellent chances in the final 30 seconds before Staal's empty-netter.
"We won't beat this thing to death," Sabres defenseman Jordan Leopold said. "There's a simple formula, we just move forward. We know we can play better."