LAST 10 : Pittsburgh 6-3-1; Buffalo 5-3-2
Season Series: This is the third of four meetings this season, and the first in Buffalo's First Niagara Center. The Sabres scored three goals in each of the first two games, but met very different fates. They won 3-2 on Oct. 15, but the Penguins hammered them in the most recent encounter, an 8-3 thrashing on Dec. 17.
Big Story: After starting the weekend with a 6-4 defeat of rival Philadelphia, Pittsburgh will look to replace the Flyers in the fourth position in the Eastern Conference with a win in Buffalo. The Sabres are trying to escape the conference's basement.
Penguins: With wins in three of their last four - including a 6-4 victory against the Flyers in a hostile Wells Fargo Center on Saturday - the Penguins have firmed up their place among the Eastern Conference elite with 71 points. But with the New York Rangers looking untouchable atop the Atlantic Division, eight points clear of Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, fourth place may prove invaluable. With a win Sunday, Pittsburgh will become the sole occupant.
On Saturday, the prolific top line of Evgeni Malkin, James Neal and Chris Kunitz was held relatively quiet, combining for just a goal. But the rest of the team picked up the slack -- especially Matt Cooke, who had a pair of goals, including the first 3-on-5 goal in the NHL this season.
"Our penalty-killing was huge," said Penguins coach Dan Bylsma, whose team scored a pair of shorthanded goals during the same penalty. "To come out of special teams a plus-1 with a couple shorthanded goals was a big part."
Sabres: Not so long ago, Buffalo was threatening to make a second-half playoff run. A 5-0-1 record following the All-Star break - including a 6-0 gem against mighty Boston - launched them into the playoff conversation. Just as quickly, four straight losses have all but guaranteed an early summer. A 4-3 shootout loss at home on Friday to fellow strugglers Montreal may have been the final straw. Tyler Ennis' fifth of the season with under nine minutes to go knotted the game at 3-3, but Buffalo couldn't get the extra point in the shootout.
"We went on a pretty good (5-0-1) run. We gave three back and now it's another overtime loss," he said. "This was a game we should've put away, but didn't. Those are points that cost you dearly."
Who's Hot: While Pittsburgh shouldn't be over-reliant on its top trio, Kunitz, Malkin and Neal will be key in determining the Pens' fate. Neal scored his 30th of the season on Saturday, Kunitz has eight points (two goals, six assists) in the past four games and Malkin had a hat trick and two assists in the last meeting with Buffalo.
Injury Report: Pittsburgh's Tyler Kennedy will miss 4-6 weeks with a high ankle sprain, while Sidney Crosby is still out indefinitely with a concussion and soft-tissue damage in his neck. … Cody McCormick is questionable for Buffalo with an upper-body injury. Jochen Hecht (concussion), TJ Brennan (flu-like symptoms) and Corey Tropp (upper body) are all on injured reserve.
Stat Pack: Sunday will pit one of the NHL's full-strength attacks against one its most anemic goaltending duos, but the deciding factor could be special teams. Buffalo has conceded five power-play goals on 12 chances over the past three games, and Pittsburgh feeds off man-advantage situations. Their 20 percent conversion rate is good for sixth in the League. And, as witnessed Saturday, their penalty kill is even better - Pittsburgh scored two shorthanded goals while killing five of six Philadelphia penalties.
Puck Drop: Pittsburgh's Pascal Dupuis reflected on Saturday's "huge" victory.
"That's huge," Dupuis said. "They were ahead of us in the standings, and you want to catch teams, especially down the stretch like that. It was a big win for us."