When the struggling Buffalo Sabres, mired amongst the bottom-dwellers of the NHL, skated into the home of the surging Pittsburgh Penguins, second-best in the NHL, the fate of the game appeared to be predetermined. The Pens were riding a 15-game winning streak, and just added veterans Jerome Iginla, Brendan Morrow, and Douglas Murray to bolster their drive for the Cup. The Sabres had just shedded veterans Robyn Regehr and Jordan Leopold. Seven of Buffalo’s 18 skaters were playing in the AHL at some point this season. Pittsburgh was riding on the strength of 3 straight shut-outs. Buffalo was riding a 4 game losing streak.
Despite all of this, the Sabres skated away from Pittsburgh with a 4-1 victory.
Kevin Porter opened up the scoring after Iginla broke a stick, and Matt Niskanen gave the puck away. One wrist shot later, and Porter had his first goal as a Sabre, and first in the NHL in over 13 months. The goal ended the Penguins shutout streak at 218 minutes.
Later in the period, Iginla knotted up the score at 1, a power-play goal on a nice pass from Evgeni Malkin. The play left defenseman Tyler Myers frozen, and beat Ryan Miller, for Iginla’s first goal in a Pens uniform. Miller was playing in his record-setting 492nd game as a Sabre, thus surpassing the record held by former Sabre Dominik Hasek.
The Sabres this season would usually fold at this point, but not on this night. The team was not deterred, and went right back to work. With 2 minutes to go in the first period, Steve Ott fired a well-placed slap shot over the shoulder of Thomas Vokoun, giving the Sabres a 2-1 lead heading into intermission. The play was set-up beautifully by Jason Pominville, who played arguably his best game of this season. Pominville, who had earlier in the day submitted a list of 8 teams that he would refuse a trade to, appeared as if he was making his audition for Cup-hopeful teams.
Just two minutes into the second stanza, Cody Hodgson froze Vokoun on a wrap-around goal, his 13th of the season. One minute later, Kevin Porter notched his 2nd goal of the game, as the Sabres caught a bounce and the puck deflected in off a Penguins defender. This prompted Pittsburgh to pull Vokoun, and insert Marc-Andre Fleury.
From there, Fleury stopped all the shots that he faced, but the Penguins looked deflated and dejected. Ryan Miller played a great game, stopping 19 shots as the Sabres held on for the win.
With the win, Buffalo is now 5 points out of the final playoff spot, with only 11 games remaining. The three teams directly ahead of them all have games in hand. The Sabres are actually closer to last place in the Eastern Conference – just 4 points ahead of the Florida Panthers.
The NHL trade deadline is 3pm today. The question for most Sabres fans remains: Who else will go, if anyone? Will GM Darcy Regier move one or more of the ‘big 3’ in Pominville, Miller, and Thomas Vanek? Is the team truly in full-rebuild mode? Or, are they still trying to fill the gaps of the current squad?