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What to Watch For: Pens vs. Sabres

by Michelle Crechiolo / Pittsburgh Penguins

PENGUINS (10-5-0) vs. SABRES (6-8-1)
WHEN: February 17, 2013 - 12:30 p.m.  |  WHERE: First Niagara Center
WATCH: NBC  |  LISTEN: Penguins Radio 24/7, 105.9 FM

The Penguins and the Sabres meet for the first time this season on Sunday afternoon in Buffalo, which will be nationally televised on NBC as part of their celebration of Hockey Day Across America.

Goalie Ryan Miller has been keeping his team in games.
(Getty Images)
The Sabres enter Sunday’s game coming off a big come-from-behind victory over the Boston Bruins on Friday night. It was an important win for the Sabres, as the team needs as many two-point nights as they can get because of their lethargic start that’s seen them at or near the bottom of the Eastern Conference standings through the first quarter or so of the season.

Despite their struggles, the Sabres do have the league’s leading scorer in winger Thomas Vanek, who has 11 goals and 23 points through 14 games. Vanek began the year on a blistering pace with points in 10 of his first 11 games, including a pair of five-point efforts. The left winger has been dynamite on a line with longtime teammate, captain Jason Pominville, who has six goals and 14 points in 14 games. Center Cody Hodgson, who has 13 points (6G-7A), completes the line.

After Vanek, we must talk about the dynamic play of goaltender Ryan Miller. Friday’s game in Boston was a perfect example of what he’s been doing for the Sabres all season. He kept his team in the game through the first 40 minutes, stopping 27-of-29 shots as the Sabres struggled in their defensive zone. If it weren’t for Miller’s sensational play, the Bruins could have easily scored a bucket of goals. But they didn’t, and Miller allowed his team to get to their game in the third period and come away with the win. 

Miller has seen more shots than any other netminder in the league by a considerable margin. He’s been covering up for breakdowns in the defensive zone and coming up with big saves. However, he’s 5-10-3 all-time against Pittsburgh, so there’s always a possibility that backup Jonas Enroth could get the start Sunday.

Overall Buffalo’s defensemen haven’t strong in their own end this season, starting with Tyler Myers. The hulking 6-foot-8 defenseman has been a healthy scratch twice this season because of his struggles. But on Friday, Myers looked like the defenseman who signed the seven-year contract extension in 2011 as he finished the game with a goal and an assist. He was skating and moving and being aggressive on the rush, something he, Christian Ehrhoff, Jordan Leopold and the rest of the Sabres defensemen do very well as a group when they’re on their game. Their mobility and ability to contribute offensively is something the Penguins must be aware of on Sunday.

Going back to the forwards, a big problem for the Sabres was that apart from Vanek’s line, no one else was producing much for the Sabres. But on Friday, the Sabres' second line of Marcus Foligno, Tyler Ennis and Drew Stafford had a big evening for their team. Stafford, who had 31 goals two seasons ago, broke his 14-game goalless drought and got a big tally for the Sabres. Ennis finished with two assists and Foligno added a helper as well as Buffalo scored all four of its goals at even strength. In addition, the Pens will be seeing rookie center Mikhail Grigorenko, drafted 12th overall in the 2012 draft, for the first time Sunday. The Sabres also acquired agitating forward Steve Ott from Dallas in the offseason.

(Getty Images)

While Vanek started the season with an eight-game point streak and points in 10 of his first 11 games, the league’s leading scorer has since been held off the scoresheet for three straight games. However, don’t expect a player of Vanek’s caliber to stay quiet for long. Vanek is a big body – 6-foot-2, 205 pounds – that uses his size to his advantage to fight through traffic in front of the net. He’s also deadly from the perimeter as he’s got a goal scorer’s release and the hands to absolutely snipe the puck. He’ll be a lot for Pittsburgh’s defensemen to handle.

This season the Sabres have been imploding in their own zone when their opponents trap them there. Vitale is exactly the kind of player who could force them into playing defense with his speed and energy on the forecheck. We saw him use that outstanding speed of his on Friday in Winnipeg to create lanes down the side of the ice for himself and drive to the net. Once his line with Tanner Glass and Craig Adams gained the zone, they brought their brand of grind-it-out hockey to sustain the pressure. Add all of that to Vitale’s proficiency in the faceoff circle, and he could be a key player for the Pens on Sunday.

The two teams combined to score 32 goals in the four meetings last season (PGH, 17; BUF, 15). That’s the most combined goals in the season series between the teams since 1995-96 when they totaled 45 goals (PGH, 23; BUF, 22) in six meetings.

The Penguins dominated the special teams matchup between the teams last season, going 6-for-14 (42.9%) on the man-advantage and killing off all 10 Buffalo power-play changes. The Penguins have held the Sabres without a power-play goal in six straight meetings entering today. The last time Buffalo scored on the man-advantage against Pittsburgh was Dec. 11, 2010. Since that PPG from Tyler Ennis, the Penguins have killed off 16 straight Buffalo power plays.

Pittsburgh has gone 17-7 in its last 24 meetings against the Sabres. In those 24 games the Penguins have averaged 3.38 goals. The Penguins have gone 8-3 in their last 11 visits to the First Niagara Center.

James Neal has notched at least one goal in three straight games and he has six goals over his previous six games. Five of the six goals have been power-play markers. He has had power-play goals in three straight games. Should Neal record a power-play tally Sunday, he will become the first Penguin to do so in four straight games since Michel Ouellet did so in five straight games between Dec. 31, 2005-Jan. 7, 2006 (Source: Stats LLC).

Neal has now scored a team-leading 11 goals this year, tying him for the NHL lead with Buffalo’s Thomas Vanek. Neal also leads the NHL with seven power-play goals and four game-winning goals. Neal has had the game-winning goal in each of the team’s last three victories. Neal ranks second in the NHL with seven road goals (Patrick Kane, 8). Neal has points in six straight games against Buffalo (5G-3A). Since joining the Penguins, Neal has recorded points in all five games he’s played against the Sabres (4G-3A).

Sidney Crosby enters today’s game having recorded at least one point in 13 straight games against the Buffalo Sabres. During his streak, Crosby has 20 points (7G-13A), while the Penguins have posted a 10-3 record. Crosby has tallied points in all 12 of his visits to the First Niagara Center – totaling 17 points (7G-10A). For his career, Crosby has tallied at least one point in 19 of 21 games against the Sabres.

The Penguins lead the Eastern Conference with a 7-2 road record thanks in large part to its goaltending. Marc-Andre Fleury has gone 4-1 with a 1.58 goals-against average (just 8 goals allowed all year) and a .946 save percentage (139 saves/147 shots) in five road starts. Tomas Vokoun is 3-1 with a 2.26 goals-against average and a .923 save percentage.


F Ville Leino, hip

Author: Michelle Crechiolo
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