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Pittsburgh vs. Buffalo Preview

by Jason Seidling / Pittsburgh Penguins
Pittsburgh Penguins (34-21-1-69) vs. Buffalo Sabres (32-14-7-71)
Where: Mellon Arena

Monday, February 1, 7 p.m.
WXDX Radio, FM 105.9
Versus Network

Season Series: The Penguins and Sabres see its season series shift to Pittsburgh after the two teams split the two contests in Buffalo. An up-and-down affair on Dec. 19 ended with the Penguins securing a 2-1 shootout victory thanks to a game-deciding goal off the stick of Kris Letang. Chris Kunitz had the lone Pittsburgh goal in regulation off a nifty feed out of the corner from Sidney Crosby. Marc-Andre Fleury made 31 saves in goal to record the victory. On Dec. 29 the Penguins raced out to a 3-0 lead early in the second period but Buffalo scored four unanswered goals, including two from Drew Stafford, after Patrick Lalime replaced Ryan Miller, as the Sabres took a 4-3 decision.
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. They are right back near the top of the conference this season with 71 points through their first 53 games, which sits them at the top of the Northeast Division, five points ahead of the surging Ottawa Senators.

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 470 career victories through Monday.
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 has nine goals in 44 games and is one of the top penalty-killing forwards on Buffalo’s roster. 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 14 points (3G-11A) in 52 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 leads all rookie blueliners with 31 points (7G-24A) while his plus-8 rating ranks third 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 17 points (5G-12A) in 50 games to complement a defensive game which is advanced for a 23-year-old rookie center.
Buffalo might have just one player (Tim Connolly) who is even close to averaging a point per game, but they more than make up for their lack of star power with a group of fast and defensively-responsible forwards. One player who does provide star power is two-time 40-goal scorer Thomas Vanek, who has averaged 39.5 goals the past three seasons. Following a slow start he has since picked up five goals over his past 10 games to give him a team-leading 16 on the season. Vanek has yet to dress against the Penguins this season.

Center Tim Connolly, who has missed almost two full seasons during his career due to concussions, is healthy and playing the best hockey of his career. The creative playmaker leads the Sabres with 49 points (13G-36A) in 53 games, 12 more points than Derek Roy and Jason Pominville (See Player Spotlight below). Connolly has notched at least one point in 17 of his past 18 games, picking up a total of 26 points (7G-19A) during the stretch. 

Derek Roy might be short in stature at 5-foot-9 but the 26-year-old center doesn’t play small on the ice. He ranks third on the team with 37 points (11G-26A) in 51 games. Roy has scored 60-or-more points three consecutive seasons heading into this one. He also sat out against the Penguins back on Dec. 29. A pair of 24-year-old wingers, Clarke MacArthur, whose 13 goals are third most on the team, 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. The Penguins are certainly aware of what Stafford can do when he is at the top of his game after he scored twice against them and added an assist on Dec. 29.

Paul Gaustad’s name was a surprise omission from the Team USA squad when Olympic rosters were announced last month. Gaustad is defensively responsible yet has enough offensive talent to score between 25-35 points per season. Gaustad has eight goals in 41 games and is one of the top faceoff men in the league. Expect Gaustad and Sidney Crosby to go head-to-head on a majority of the in-zone faceoffs. 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. Kaleta leads the team in both hits (108) and penalty minutes (73).
There are not many household names on the Buffalo defensive corps 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-9 rating in 53 games. Known as more of a defensive presence, Tallinder has chipped in 13 points (3G-10A). He 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 60 penalty minutes which rank second on the team behind Patrick Kaleta’s 73. Rivet handles both power-play and penalty-killing chores for Buffalo. Andrej Sekera, a Slovak native, is an up-and-coming No. 3/4 defenseman who handles some power play minutes for the Sabres. He has a powerful slap shot from the point and has six points (2G-4A) in 29 games.

Rookie and Calder Trophy candidate Tyler Myers looks like a defensive anchor who can 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. Myers leads the Sabres in average time on ice at 23:27 per game. As a big guy who can play with a physical edge, it is somewhat surprising that Myers has picked up just 16 penalty minutes. Chris 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. He has 17 points (1G-16A) in 41 games while only Myers spends more time on the ice than the 20:56 averaged by Butler.
The Penguins can expect a low-scoring, tight-checking game when they host the Sabres. Buffalo has surrendered only 127 goals through 53 games, the second-fewest total allowed in the NHL. The chief reason has been the play of all-star goaltender Ryan Miller who leads the league with a .935 save percentage, trails only Martin Brodeur, Evgeni Nabokov and Jamie Quick in wins with 29, ranks second only to Antti Niemi with a 2.03 goals-against average and has five shutouts.

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 with Pittsburgh in 1996-97 and subsequently ran off an NHL-record unbeaten streak of 16 consecutive games (14-0-2) to begin his career. Lalime has fared great in two appearances against the Penguins this season. He got the start and took the hard-luck loss on Dec. 19 when he made 23 saves in a 2-1 shootout defeat. Lalime made 27 saves in relief of Miller on Dec. 29 to pick up the victory. For the season he is 3-2-2 with a 3.11 goals-against average and .902 save percentage.
If the Penguins hope to pick up their second victory of the season over the Sabres they will want to find a way to contain Jason Pominville. The 27-year-old sniper has picked up goals in each of the two games against the Penguins. He has scored six times in 17 career games against Pittsburgh.

Pominville, who is one of the most underrated goals scorers in the league, is on pace to record his fourth-straight 20-plus goal campaign with 14 goals through his first 53 games. The dependable two-way performer is tied for second on the Sabres with 37 points (14G-23A).
"When Millsie sees it, he'll make the save."

- Sabres Jason Pominville talking to Yahoo! Sports about the play of Ryan Miler, who many writers pegged as the midseason recipient of the Vezina Trophy as the league’s top goaltender.

87.2: Buffalo ranks second in the NHL with a penalty killing success rate of 87.2 percent. They have killed off 56 of their past 59 (95 percent) opponent power plays.
New Penguins iPhone/iTouch application available for FREE download!
Look for "YinzCam Penguins" in iTunes.

Author: Jason Seidling

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