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Sabres get back into action against Penguins

by Adam Kimelman /
SABRES (23-21-5) at PENGUINS (33-15-4)

TV -- RIS, MSG-B (HD), FS-Pittsburgh (HD)

Last 10 --
Buffalo 7-3-0; Pittsburgh 7-3-0

Season series -- This is the third of four meetings between the teams. Marc-Andre Fleury stopped all 30 shots in a 1-0 Penguins win Nov. 24 in Buffalo, and on Dec. 11, the Pens won 5-2 in Buffalo in the last stand on their 12-game win streak.

Big story -- Despite missing their top two offensive performers in Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, the Penguins have won four in a row and closed the gap on Philadelphia for the top spot in the Atlantic Division and Eastern Conference.

Team Scope:

Sabres --
A quirk in the schedule makes Friday's game their first since Jan. 25 -- a span of 10 days that has allowed coach Lindy Ruff to try a few different line combinations. One of them is putting rookie center Paul Byron on a line with fellow rookie Tyler Ennis and veteran forward Drew Stafford.

Byron had a goal and an assist in two games prior to the long break, and made a fan out of Ruff.

"He played well for us," Ruff told the Buffalo News. "I really like his speed. Even for his size (5-foot-9, 170 pounds), his tenacity has been good. He's been real hard on the puck. A goal and assist in the first two games, I think that speaks for itself."

Penguins -- Malkin will return Friday, but the Pens have been doing quite well without him. Wednesday's win against the Islanders was their fourth straight.

"(Playing without Sidney Crosby and Malkin) is making everyone stronger," forward Matt Cooke told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. "It's making us a better team, especially when we get those guys back."

That will come Friday, as coach Dan Bylsma on Thursday pronounced Malkin good to go. Malkin had bee practicing with the team for the last few days after saying his knee felt fine; it just had been finally beating the sinus infection he had been battling.

Who's hot -- Penguins forward Chris Kunitz has stepped into the team's scoring breech with goals in two straight games. … The flipping of the calendar must have flipped on Thomas Vanek's hot button, as the Sabres forward has 5 goals and 11 assists in 12 games in 2011.

Injury report -- Sabres forward Patrick Kaleta is close to having the cast removed from his broken left hand, but he won't be able to play Friday. Center Tim Connolly, who missed two games with a hip strain, should be in the lineup. … Penguins forward Arron Asham is day-to-day with an upper-body injury while forward Mark Letestu needs knee surgery that will sideline him 4-6 weeks.

Stat pack -- The Penguins have killed off 47 of the 50 power plays they've faced in their last 12 games. They lead the League at 88.6-percent efficiency on the penalty kill.

Puck drop --
The biggest story in the Penguins' locker room following Wednesday's 3-0 win against the Islanders was goalie Brent Johnson trading a shutout for a knockout of Isles netminder Rick DiPietro.

When DiPietro hit Cooke with his blocker with 16.5 seconds left in the third period, Johnson skated the length of the ice to engage DiPietro, and the fight was over in one punch, with Johnson decking DiPietro with a left hand.

"It was like a video game or something," Penguins forward Mike Rupp told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. "It was funny watching Johnny go down there and how confident he was."

"Johnny was sick," added Fleury, who had to finish the final few seconds of the game after Johnson was ejected. "He's a righty, first of all, and he goes in as a lefty. That was awesome. He was so calm, so relaxed. It was just, boom! His expression never changed. It was just boom, and that was it."

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