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Pittsburgh Penguins vs. Buffalo Sabres @NHLdotcom
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GAME: Pittsburgh Penguins (21-45-7-4) at Buffalo Sabres (34-32-6-4).

TIME: Friday, 8 p.m. EST.

A home-and-home series against the Pittsburgh Penguins was something teams looked forward to a few months ago.

That's not the case anymore.

The much-improved Penguins look to hinder the Buffalo Sabres' late-season playoff push when the teams meet at HSBC Arena.

By far the NHL's worst team most of this season, the Penguins have played so well this month that they may not finish with the NHL's worst record. Pittsburgh has won three straight and is 10-3-2 since an 18-game winless streak (0-17-0-1).

If the Penguins can win their final three games this month, they would tie the team record with 11 victories in March. That mark was set by the 1992-93 Presidents' Trophy-winning team, which went 11-2.

Before March, Pittsburgh's best month this season was December, when it was 4-8-1-2.

"We've got lots of confidence right now," Pittsburgh's Rico Fata said. "It shows in our play and it shows in our team. Everyone is coming to the rink with a smile on their face. Everyone is eager and we want to play."

Pittsburgh is 7-0-2 against Buffalo since a 4-1 loss on Oct. 14, 2001.

Although the Penguins are playing very well, their remaining games are strictly for pride. The Sabres, meanwhile, are trying to catch the New York Islanders for the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.

Buffalo moved within six points of the Islanders with a 2-1 victory over visiting Montreal on Wednesday, but New York regained an eight-point bulge with its 4-2 win in Philadelphia on Thursday.

J.P. Dumont and Adam Mair scored second-period goals, and Martin Biron turned aside 24 shots for the Sabres, who are trying to qualify for the playoffs for the first time since 2000-01.

"We've got to count on them (the Islanders) to lose a couple," Sabres coach Lindy Ruff said. "If we win a couple we can narrow the gap pretty quick."

Buffalo, coming off consecutive 2-1 wins, has gained at least a point in seven of eight games (4-1-0-3).

"We're definitely playing our best hockey," Sabres defenseman Jay McKee said. "We're playing with our most confidence all year. Everything really seems to be clicking. We just have to keep this going. We have to be the hottest team going into the playoffs."

The Sabres' remaining schedule isn't particularly daunting.

After visiting Pittsburgh on Saturday, they face Columbus and the New York Rangers - two of the league's worst teams - before closing the regular season against Toronto and Montreal.

STANDINGS: Penguins - 53 points, 5th place, 45 PB, Atlantic Division. Sabres - 78 points, 5th place, 19 PB, Northeast Division.

TEAM LEADERS: Penguins - Ryan Malone, 22 goals; Dick Tarnstrom, 35 assists and 50 points; Brooks Orpik, 123 PIM. Sabres - Miroslav Satan, 29 goals; Daniel Briere, 34 assists and 59 points; Andrew Peters, 134 PIM.

SPECIAL TEAMS (through March 24): Penguins - Power play: 18.2 percent (62 for 340), 7th in NHL. Penalty killing: 76.6 percent (269 for 351), 30th. Sabres - Power play: 16.2 percent (56 for 346), 16th. Penalty killing: 84.7 percent (277 for 327), 8th.

GOALTENDERS: Penguins - Jean-Sebastien Aubin (6-8-0, 1 SO, 2.97 GAA); Sebastien Caron (8-23-4, 1, 3.81). Sabres - Biron (23-17-4, 1, 2.65); Mika Noronen (11-16-2, 2, 2.45).

SEASON SERIES: Penguins, 2-0.

LAST MEETING: Dec. 16; Penguins, 2-1. At Pittsburgh, Konstantin Koltsov snapped a tie early in the third period and Caron stopped 21 shots for the Penguins.

ROAD/HOME RECORDS: Penguins - 9-23-2-4 on the road; Sabres - 19-12-4-3 at home.

Associated Press
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