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Pittsburgh vs. Buffalo Preview

by Sam Kasan / Pittsburgh Penguins

Pittsburgh Penguins (17-11-4-38) at Buffalo Sabres (16-13-4-36)
Where: HSBC Arena
When: Monday, December 22, 2008, 7:00 p.m.
Radio: WXDX Radio, FM 105.9
TV: Versus Network
Season Series: The two clubs wrap up the season series Monday. Pittsburgh is 1-2-0 against Buffalo this year, losing the past two games. It will be the second matchup between the two clubs at HSBC Arena. In the first go-around, the Penguins had a 3-2 lead entering the third period but Buffalo rallied with a four-goal third period to defeat the Penguins, 4-3, Nov. 28. The Sabres also won the previous meeting, 4-3, Dec. 8 at Mellon Arena. Pittsburgh recorded a four-goal third-period comeback to register a 5-2 win Nov. 15 in the opening game of the series.



Pens vs. Sabres 12/8

Trail in the Third Period: In all three previous contests with the Sabres, the team that entered the third period behind wound up winning the game. It could just be an odd trend - an anomaly - or there could be something beneficial about playing from behind. Either way, the Penguins need to get a win right now before they fall out of the playoff picture.

Protect the Crease
: The Penguins struggled at keeping the crease clear against the Toronto Maples in their 7-3 loss. In the previous game in Buffalo, the Sabres scored three goals from right in front of the net. The Sabres will be aggressive in front of the Pittsburgh goal. The Penguins will have to do a better job of keeping the crease clear and eliminating those close-range opportunities. 
Following the lockout, the Sabres made back-to-back appearances in the Eastern Conference Finals. They didn’t make it to the Big Show on either occasion but appeared on the cusp of a championship. That was until the team lost three of its best players and missed the playoffs entirely last season. Forwards Daniel Briere and Chris Drury defected in free agency. Then top defenseman Teppo Numminen was diagnosed with a heart ailment. Numminen rehabbed all season and played his first and only game in the team’s final game of the season in an emotional affair.

Lindy Ruff is in his 12th straight season behind the bench for Buffalo, by far the longest tenured active coach with one team. Ruff has a reputation for getting the best out of his lineups. The Sabres didn’t lose a game in regulation until Oct. 27, going 6-0-2 out of the gate. However, they hit a wall in November with only one win in eight games (1-6-1). Buffalo has righted the ship somewhat, going 5-2-1 in its last eight games. The Sabres are fighting for a playoff spot - currently the eighth seed - and can’t afford to lose any points.
Briere and Drury jumped ship prior to last season. The slumping Sabres opted to part ways with All-Star defenseman Brian Campbell when contract negotiations broke down and with the team out of playoffs. Buffalo also lost defenseman Dmitri Kalinin in free agency. Buffalo isn’t a big player in free agency, preferring to promote draft picks or utilizing trades. General manager Darcy Regier sent two draft picks to San Jose for veteran defenseman Craig Rivet. Then he signed the well-traveled Patrick Lalime to backup All-Star Ryan Miller.
Buffalo has struggled scoring goals last season. They’ve improved this season but are still in the middle of the pack - ranking 15th with 2.79 goals per game. They would really have struggled to score this year if Edmonton had stolen young sniper Thomas Vanek, who netted 45 and 36 goals the past two seasons. The Oilers sent Vanek an offer sheet but Buffalo wisely matched the offer to keep the University of Minnesota star in a Sabres uniform. He’s their most explosive scorer and can single-handedly change a game. He is currently second in the NHL with 24 goals this season and tops the team with 30 points.

Derek Roy led the Sabres last year with 81 points on 32 goals and 49 assists. The fifth-year pro is tied with Vanek with 30 points (11G-19A). Roy is riding a nine-game point streak with five goals and eight assists for 13 points in that span. Jason Pominville has matured into a quality forward, scoring 61 goals and 148 points in the last two seasons. He’s currently third on the team with nine goals and 17 assists for 26 points.

Drew Stafford is a big body at 6-foot-2, 213-pounds. He’s a physical forward that won’t shy away from contact, though he has suffered a concussion, as well as shoulder and ankle injuries as a result of his bruising style. Stafford loves to crash the net, as the Penguins learned when he scored two goals against them on the doorstep in Buffalo’s 5-3 win Nov. 28. Johan Hecht is a reliable, two-way player. Daniel Paille is looking to improve on his 19-goal, 35-point rookie campaign.
The Sabres defense has performed much better than expected after entering the season without two quality blueliners from last year, Campbell and Kalinin. Still, the unit is allowing 2.79 goals per game, ranking 14th in the NHL. The return of Numminen has been a huge boost to the defensive corps and adds stability to the blue line. But he is 40 years old and missed all but one game last year. He hasn’t yet reclaimed his status as the top dog for Buffalo, but he rehabbed aggressively all last year just to play in one game so don’t count him out.

Craig Rivet has underrated offensive ability and has added more veteran leadership to the backend. Jaroslav Spacek is off to a great start with 17 points in 33 games, topping all Buffalo defensemen. Henrik Tallinder, Toni Lydman, Andrej Sekera and Nathan Paetsch round out the group.
Ryan Miller is the cornerstone to the Sabres franchise. He rose from obscurity after being a fifth-round pick (138th overall) to become the backbone of the Sabres. Buffalo allowed star player after star player to leave in free agency, but they made sure to lock up Miller to a long-term deal. Miller has good size at 6-foot-2 and is fluid moving around the crease. He has great reflexes and a solid technique. He was a workhorse last season, playing in 76 games and stopping 1,907 pucks. Miller went 36-27-10 with a 2.64 goals against average and .906 save percentage. He’s improved those numbers this year with a 2.56 GAA and .913 save percentage, though he has won only once in his past four games.

To give Miller a chance to stay fresh for a postseason push, the Sabres signed former Penguin and journeyman Patrick Lalime, who went 16-12-2 with Chicago last season. He’s been a starter in the league and can carry the load if necessary.
Craig Rivet is a well-rounded defenseman that moves the puck well and can start the breakout. He logs a lot of power-play minutes and put up 30 assists last season. He’s not very physical but he won’t shy away from contact either. He spent his first 14 years with the Montreal Canadiens organization after the Habs selected him in the third round of the 1992 draft. The Habs traded him to San Jose two years ago, who then shipped him to Buffalo this past offseason. The veteran blueliner has 765 NHL games under his belt to go with his 45 goals, 154 assists and 199 points. Rivet is only one point shy of hitting the 200 milestone.
“I don’t care how much talent you have on your roster. If you don’t work, points are hard to get.”
- Philippe Boucher on the team’s 7-3 loss to Toronto Saturday
22: Derek Roy’s point total over his last 18 games with nine goals and 13 assissts. He’s been held scoreless only three times during that stretch.

Author: Sam Kasan

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