The Pittsburgh Penguins showed why they’re one of the elite teams in the NHL on Wednesday.
The Buffalo Sabres drew first blood as Drew Stafford scored 5:58 into the contest but the Penguins stepped on the gas and scored the next five. Pittsburgh rolled to a 5-1 win at First Niagara Center.
Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Harry Zolnierczyk, Brian Gibbons and James Neal scored for the Penguins. Crosby, the NHL’s leading scorer, and Malkin each scored on breakaways against Sabres netminder Ryan Miller.
Miller finished the night with 29 saves. His counterpart, Marc-Andre Fleury, turned aside 24 shots.
Pittsburgh sits atop the Eastern Conference standings and heading in, Buffalo knew they were in for a tough test.
“That’s a good team over that that obviously played extremely well and we shot ourselves in the foot there with a couple of turnovers in the second. But there’s no lack of passion,” Sabres captain Steve Ott said. “Every guy’s working hard and trying to compete and all that stuff. Let’s be honest, that’s a good team.”
The Sabres are now winless in three straight and interim coach Ted Nolan hoped to see a better effort from a lot of his players.
“You find out about people through difficult times,” he said. “When things are going OK, you camouflage certain traits. Things like this, you find out who really wants to compete and who doesn’t.”
Buffalo currently sits in 30th place and with a roster freeze coming on Friday due to the Olympic break and the NHL Trade Deadline looming on March, 5, changes to the roster could very well be on the way.
“You look at two different teams out there. This is one of the premier teams in the League and they’re running for a Stanley Cup. And ours is in the early stages of trying to re-establish something here – and establish it with the right attitude,” Nolan said. “When things like this [happen], you find out who’s in for the long haul and who wants to battle through difficult times. That’s a good team, give them that, but it doesn’t stop you from trying to compete against them.”
Stafford notched his ninth goal of the season early in the first and now has seven points (5+2) in his past six games. He also has 10 points (7+3) in his last nine games at home.
Zolnierczyk tied the game with 4:59 to play in the period, but the Sabres felt good about about the next 40 minutes as they skated into the first intermission in a 1-1 tie, However, things quickly turned in the Penguins’ favor.
“We felt good about our first period. We felt good about our jump and our compete level,” Sabres defenseman Jamie McBain said. “We were feeling good going into the second period and then obviously, you give their big offensive guys enough chances and enough room, they’re going to make you pay for it and that’s what happened.“
Crosby tallied 2:08 into the second period on the power play. He broke loose from the Buffalo defense and wristed a shot over Miller’s glove.
With a goal and an assist in the game, Crosby extended his point streak against Buffalo to 17 games, a streak that streak dates back to Dec. 29, 2007.
He’s collected at least one point in 23 of 25 games against Buffalo and has has 10 goals and 18 assists over that span. He’s also recorded points in each of his 14 visits to Buffalo (9+13).
The Penguins went ahead 3-1 when Malkin walked in alone on Miller and scored a highlight reel goal unassisted.
Gibbons scored 5:22 into the third and Neal tallied with 8:48 remaining in regulation.
Before the game, Nolan said there might be a chance Miller would play both Wednesday night in Pittsburgh and Thursday night in Ottawa against the Senators. While that is still up in the air, Nolan did not blame his goaltender for the loss.
“That had nothing to do with Ryan tonight. It was the guys in front of him. For our team, we need everyone,” he said. “We had a couple guys no-show tonight and playing one of the better teams in the League, you’d think they’d be excited to play. A couple weren’t.”
The Sabres and Senators face off on Thursday at 7:30 p.m. at Canadian Tire Centre.