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Pittsburgh vs. Buffalo Preview

by Jason Seidling / Pittsburgh Penguins

Pittsburgh Penguins (24-10-1-49) vs. Buffalo Sabres (21-10-2-44)
Where: HSBC Arena

When: Saturday, December 19, 7 p.m.
Radio: WXDX Radio, FM 105.9
FSN Pittsburgh, the game will be broadcast in HD, available on Armstrong 179, Atlantic Broadband 782, Citizen 737, Comcast 226/774, DISH 428, DirecTV 659 and Verizon Fios 576.
View FSN's Broadcast Schedule here()

Season Series:
Pittsburgh and Buffalo meet for the first time in 2009-10. The two teams will meet again in Buffalo on Dec. 29. They split the season series last year with each team winning once in the other’s building. Evgeni Malkin led all scorers with 11 points (1G-10A) in the four games while the Penguins went 2-0 against Buffalo in games started by Marc-Andre Fleury.




Last Meeting: Dec. 22, 2008
PIT 4 - BUF 3 OT
Game Highlights
AP Recap
Don’t Take Lalime Lightly: The Penguins appear to be catching a break against the Sabres as reserve netminder Patrick Lalime is slated to get the call instead of Ryan Miller, arguably the league’s top goaltender through the first half of the season. This only becomes an advantage if the Penguins treat Lalime as if he were Miller and ignore his 3.51 goals-against average and .888 save percentage this season.

Score Three Goals:
Pittsburgh has a 24-0 record in ’09-10 when they score three or more times in a hockey game. They also scored at least three times in all four games against Buffalo last season. Buffalo ranks 12th in the 15-team Eastern Conference with 85 goals heading into their game against Toronto on Friday night. Marc-Andre Fleury has allowed two goals or fewer in nine of his past 11 starts (9-1-1). Add it all up and you see why getting to the three-goal mark in this contest is huge for the Penguins.
After missing the postseason in back-to-back seasons the Buffalo Sabres have spent almost the entire campaign atop the Northeast Division thanks to outstanding play between the pipes from Ryan Miller. Buffalo appeared poised to return to the postseason tournament last year but a high-ankle sprain to Miller dealt a severe blow to those dreams and the Sabres barely missed qualifying by finishing 10th in the Eastern Conference with 91 points. The Sabres made back-to-back trips to the Eastern Conference Finals in 2005-06 and ’06-07 before the defections of Chris Drury, Danny Briere and Brian Campbell weakened their offense.

Stability at the top is one of the primary reasons why the Sabres have been able to remain a playoff contender year-after-year despite playing in a small market. General Manager Darcy Regier and head coach Lindy Ruff have been in charge with running the ship since the 1997-98 season. In that time the Sabres have made one Stanley Cup Final appearance in ’98-99, taken three trips to the conference finals and won one Northeast Division title (’06-07). A rash of injuries in the 2006 Conference Finals that devastated the Sabres blue line heading into Game 7 was possibly the only thing that kept Buffalo from getting past the Carolina Hurricanes to a second Cup Final that year. Ruff won the Jack Adams Award following the ’05-06 season and holds the Sabres team record with 458 career victories through Friday.
As one of the smaller markets in the league and with much of their salary space tied into home-grown talent the Sabres do not venture into the free-agent market all too often and this offseason was no exception. Their only two moves this past summer were to bring grinder Mike Grier back for a second tour of duty along with the signing of defenseman Steve Montador away from the division-rival Boston Bruins.

Grier returns to Buffalo after spending the past three seasons with the San Jose Sharks. He spent a season and a half with the Sabres from ’03-04 to ’05-06, scoring eight goals and posting 31 points in 95 games. Grier ranks second on the Sabres with 37 hits in 23 games. Montador plays bigger than his 6-foot, 211-pound frame in the defensive zone and has underrated puck skills in the offensive end. While he won’t wow you with his offensive ability, Montador has picked up seven points (2G-5A) in 32 games after registering 21 points (4G-17A) in 78 games last season split between the Bruins and the Anaheim Ducks.

Two rookies have stepped into the lineup and supplied production that has exceeded preseason projections. Defenseman Tyler Myers, a first-round selection in 2008, has more than replaced the offense lost due to the departures of Jaroslav Spacek and Teppo Numminen. The 19-year-old rearguard trails only Michael Del Zotto of the New York Rangers among rookie blueliners with 18 points (3G-15A) while his plus-8 rating ranks second on the Sabres. What Tim Kennedy lacks in size at 5-foot-9, 176 pounds, he more than makes up for in production. Kennedy has 10 points (4G-6A) in 32 games to complement a defensive game which is advanced for a 23-year-old rookie center.
Even with the losses of Chris Drury, Danny Briere and Maxim Afinogenov over the past three seasons the Sabres should have enough offensive firepower to rank higher than 26th in the league in goal scoring. A huge reason why the Sabres’ totals are down is sniper Thomas Vanek, a two-time 40-goal scorer who has averaged 39.5 goals the past three seasons, is on pace for only 24 tallies this year, which would represent the lowest total of his five-year career. Despite his struggles the Penguins cannot lose sight of Vanek because he is one of those scorers who can beat you with a long-range precision shot or by camping out in front of the net for tips or rebounds. Center Derek Roy leads Buffalo in both assists (18) and points (25) heading into Friday. The diminutive Roy is actually as much a shooter as he is a playmaker, and his 28 goals last season trailed only the 40 registered by Vanek while his 70 points led the team.

Right winger Jason Pominville has been a consistent point producer for the Sabres since breaking into the league in ’05-06 and he has never scored less than 18 goals. Pominville might have only seven goals through 32 games but he is not afraid to shoot the puck from anywhere on the ice as his 94 shots are most on the team through Friday. A pair of 24-year-old wingers, Clarke MacArthur, who leads Buffalo with 10 goals, and Drew Stafford, who lit the lamp 20 times last season, are emerging power forwards who are not afraid to park their bodies in front of the net and work for dirty goals. They will give the Penguins a net-front presence to deal with, particularly when Buffalo goes on the man-advantage. Each has three power-play goals.

Buffalo should benefit from the return of third-line center Paul Gaustad to the lineup this weekend. Gaustad is defensively responsible yet has enough offensive talent to score between 25-35 points per season. When he exited the lineup on Nov. 27 he was the top faceoff man in the NHL at 63.6 percent. The presence of Mike Grier, Patrick Kaleta and Adam Mair on the Sabres’ bottom-two lines makes Buffalo a hard team to play against as all three are more than willing to take the body to separate the man from the puck. They rank 1-3 on the team in hits through Friday. Kaleta has also shown a decent scoring touch with six goals in 29 games, including three in his past three games.
There are not many household names on the Buffalo defensive core but as a whole they play tough, physical defense and each have more than enough skill to get the puck ahead to the Sabres’ fast collection of offensive talent. Veteran Henrik Tallinder is the best of the bunch and currently leads the team with a plus-11 rating in 32 games. More of a defensive presence with 98 career points (18G-80A) in 418 games, Tallinder is a top penalty killer who supplies a good first pass from his zone. He has spent his entire professional career in Buffalo. Ranking right up there with Tallinder is captain Craig Rivet, acquired from the San Jose Sharks at the outset of last season. Big and mobile, Rivet is the top two-way defender on the Buffalo roster with 24 or more points in four consecutive seasons and 47 penalty minutes which rank second on the team behind Patrick Kaleta’s 63. Rivet handles both power-play and penalty-killing chores for Buffalo.

A couple of youngsters, Tyler Myers and Chris Butler, look like defensive anchors to take the Sabres into the next decade. Only 19, Myers reminds scouts of a younger version of Boston’s Zdeno Chara with his 6-foot-7 frame and offensive skills. Myers is much further along than Chara was at this age and thus far has kept improving his play rather than hit the rookie wall. Butler, 23, spent 47 games with the Sabres last season after three seasons with the University of Denver. He posted a plus-11 rating in those games. This year Butler trails only Myers in average ice time at 20:55 per game and has eight assists in 25 games.
Only the Chicago Blackhawks (67) have given up fewer goals heading into Friday night than the 70 tallies allowed by the Buffalo Sabres. The chief reason has been the play of all-star goaltender Ryan Miller. Prior to Friday’s games Miller ranks first in the league in the following categories: save percentage (.938), goals-against average (1.88) and shutouts (4) while his 19 wins are tied for fourth-best.

A five-time 30-game winner, Miller has not only thrust himself to the top of Vezina Trophy lists but his play has also vaulted him to the position of leading candidate to start for the United States at the 2010 Olympic Games. Miller is extremely quick and athletic for a 6-foot-2 netminder and his solid positioning rarely exposes holes for shooters to aim. Sometimes the only way to get pucks behind Miller is with traffic in his crease or quick puck movement to get him going side-to-side.

Miller is backed up by former Penguin Patrick Lalime, who broke into the league in Pittsburgh in 1996-97 and subsequently ran off an NHL-record unbeaten streak of 16 consecutive games (14-0-2) to begin his career. A butterfly goaltender, Lalime spent his best years in Ottawa where he posted four-straight 25-win seasons between 2000-01 to ’03-04. He has a record of 6-15-3 since joining Buffalo prior to last season, including a 1-2 record this year.
For the first time since the 2002-03 season Tim Connolly is healthy and looks poised to play a full slate after appearing in each of Buffalo’s first 32 games. One of the most overlooked playmakers in the game, the former No. 5-overall selection by the New York Islanders in 1999 is second on the Sabres with 23 points (6G-17A) through Friday.

Last season Connolly finished fourth on the team with 47 points (18G-29A) despite playing in only 48 games mostly because of a hip injury which kept him out of 27 contests. A shifty puckhandler with 20 career points (5G-15A) in 24 postseason contests, Connolly has been able to stay clear of concussion problems the past few seasons which cost him the entire ’03-04 campaign and all but two games in ’06-07.
- Buffalo might be getting some good news on the injury front with word that Paul Gaustad could suit up either Friday or Saturday night after being sidelined since Nov. 27 with a leg injury.
- Patrick Kaleta, who was recently promoted to the second line, is out indefinitely with a head injury after being hit by former Penguin Jarkko Ruutu on Wednesday.
- Defenseman Chris Butler has no time frame on his potential return after he suffered an ankle injury on Dec. 3.
- Winger Nathan Gerbe is day-to-day with a strained groin.
“We always have high-flying, tight games up there so that is what we expect on Saturday.”

  - Marc-Andre Fleury on facing the Sabres at HSBC Arena.

7-5-2: Patrick Lalime’s career record against his original team. Lalime also has a 2.42 goals-against average and two shutouts in 14 career games against the Penguins.

Author: Jason Seidling

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