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Michalek, Neal score first as Pens beat Sabres

by Alan Robinson
PITTSBURGH -- How rare is this: Two Pittsburgh Penguins players scored their first goal for the team slightly more than three minutes apart in the second period -- and neither was a recent addition from the minors.

How common is this: Goaltender Ryan Miller and the Buffalo Sabres couldn't beat the Penguins despite holding an early lead.

James Neal and Zbynek Michalek each scored his first Penguins goal -- Neal in his sixth game, Michalek in his 59th -- and Pittsburgh continued to press for the Eastern Conference lead even without its stars by beating the Buffalo Sabres 3-1 Tuesday night.

"Both guys were pretty relieved and had pretty big smiles on their faces to get their first goals," coach Dan Bylsma said. "Neal is a guy who is going to score a lot of goals, and he's going to get them in a lot of different ways."

The Sabres, 6-0-1 in their previous seven road games, failed to capture at least a point for the first time in the eight games since Terry Pegula bought the team. Buffalo was 5-0-2 in the first seven under new ownership, following a much-applauded purchase that has helped create optimism that the Sabres could reach the playoffs. They remained eighth in the East with 72 points, one more than Carolina.

One thing that may help the Sabres' hopes is that they're done with the Penguins. Despite taking a 1-0 lead on Rob Niedermayer's goal 2:47 into the game, the Sabres were swept in the four-game season series and now have lost six in a row to the Penguins. They haven't won in Pittsburgh since Dec. 8, 2008.

Then again, Michalek hadn't scored in 91 games, or since Jan. 14, 2010, before he broke a 1-1 tie with a slap shot from the right point set up by Neal at 4:42 of the second.

Neal carried the puck behind the net before passing to the right point, where Michalek teed up a shot that sailed under the crossbar. Miller, screened on the play, could only shake his head in disappointment as his record slipped to 2-8-2 in his last 12 against Pittsburgh. He made 28 saves.

"I didn't even see the puck go in, there were so many people in front of me," Michalek said. "When the crowd reacted, I wasn't even sure whether it was mine or not. Then I saw everybody skating toward me and I figured it was."

Marc-Andre Fleury shook off Niedermayer's second goal of the season - and second in as many games -- to stop 29 shots and help give Pittsburgh its first victory in regulation since it beat Buffalo 3-2 on Feb. 4. That was the same night star forward Evgeni Malkin was lost for the season with torn knee ligaments. The Sabres couldn't hold a 2-0 lead in that one.

Fleury went 4-0-0 while allowing only five goals against Buffalo this season.

Pittsburgh was 0-for-7 on the power play, but all that penalty-killing time - more than 12 minutes - might have held down Buffalo's scorers.

"Too many of our good offensive players had to sit on the bench too long. We had too many players sitting out," coach Lindy Ruff said. "The penalty-killing was excellent."

Buffalo, which is battling injuries throughout its lineup, played with three players recalled from AHL Portland since Sunday -- and without leading scorer Thomas Vanek, who was so sick with the flu that he couldn't get out of his hotel room.

Neal, acquired from Dallas on Feb. 21 to add offense to a team that is missing injured captain Sidney Crosby (concussion) and Malkin, didn't have a point in his first six Penguins games. He made up for it with a goal, an assist and a play that led to Pittsburgh's third goal.

The Penguins, despite playing their 27th consecutive game without Crosby, remained only two points behind Philadelphia for the Atlantic Division and Eastern Conference lead.

Neal got his 22nd of the season 1:25 into the second period, after Jordan Staal won a faceoff in the Sabres zone not long after sustaining a cut lip during the opening faceoff of the period. Deryk Engelland carried the puck through the left circle and fed Neal, whose shot appeared to deflect off defenseman Jordan Leopold's skate.

"Those are the kind of goals that can get you out of a slump," Neal said. "It's just great to get that first one. It was a little bit of a lucky one, but it was nice to see it finally go into the net."

Mark Letestu's deflection of Michalek's shot from the right wing boards at 13:06 of the third made it 3-1. Neal kept the puck in the Buffalo end, and Michalek grabbed it and put it on net.

"We can't look for excuses," Buffalo defenseman Mike Weber said. " I felt for the majority of the game we took it to them, but when we let off the pedal there in the second period, they got us."

Buffalo is 3-1-1 with games remaining in Boston on Thursday and Toronto on Saturday during a season-long seven-game road trip.

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