Buffalo Sabres PreGame Skate #51: Pittsburgh Penguins


Jan 25, 2014; Dallas, TX, USA; Pittsburgh Penguins center

Evgeni Malkin

(71) yells at the referees during the third period against the Dallas Stars at the American Airlines Center. The Stars shut out the Penguins 3-0. Mandatory Credit: Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

The Buffalo Sabres play the first of a rare Monday-Tuesday back-to-back series this evening as they visit the Pittsburgh Penguins for the second time this season.

Tonight’s game marks the middle of three meetings between the two teams; they’ll see each other again next Wednesday in Buffalo.

The Penguins have certainly been a team to watch this season. They sit atop the Eastern Conference with 74 points – that’s seven more than second-place Boston – and overall are tied for fourth in the league.

Meanwhile, the Sabres are almost 40 points below the Penguins, last in the league with 35 points in 50 games. The team has 97 goals-for, 144 against, and a goal differential of minus-47. Not the worst in the league, but not exactly comparable with Pittsburgh’s plus-40 goal differential.

Pittsburgh recently saw a three-game winning streak come to an end, as they fell to the Dallas Stars 3-0 on Saturday. The team will look to rebound tonight before heading to Los Angeles for a late-night tilt with the Kings on Thursday.

The Sabres, of course, are coming off a 5-2 win over the Columbus Blue Jackets that ended Buffalo’s five-game losing streak.

Despite being outshot 38-22, the Sabres managed to pull away with a solid win. Christian Ehrhoff and Marcus Foligno both scored shorthanded goals. Matt Ellis, Steve Ott and Cody Hodgson also scored in the win.

Ryan Miller had 36 saves.

The last time the Sabres and Penguins met was October 5 at Consol Energy Center. That game saw eight Pittsburgh players notch at least a point as they defeated Buffalo, 4-1.

Thomas Vanek scored the lone goal for the Sabres, with Pittsburgh goals coming from Sidney Crosby, Chuck Kobasew, Chris Kunitz (penalty shot) and Craig Adams. The goaltending matchup that night was Jhonas Enroth against Marc-Andre Fleury, with each goaltender making 31 and 20 saves each, respectively. (Side note: Ryan Miller was out, so Matt Hackett was backing up Enroth that night.)

Pittsburgh has some seriously dangerous players that the Sabres will need to contain tonight. To state some cold, hard facts:

  • The Sabres’ leading points-scorer is Cody Hodgson (27). For the Pens, it’s Crosby – with 72. They’re also each team’s leading goal-scorer, with 12 and 27 each, respectively.
  • Christian Ehrhoff leads the Sabres with 19 assists; Crosby has 45.
  • The Penguins have three players who have surpassed the 50-point mark this season. Six players on the Pittsburgh squad have more points than the top points-getter on Buffalo.

Okay, now that we’ve gotten through that….. a few specific players to watch on Pittsburgh. Aside from Crosby, there’s left winger Chris Kunitz, who has been especially sharp this season. Kunitz has 25 goals and 28 assists this season. He’s second on the team in goals and points, is a plus-25 overall and has an astounding 11 power-play goals.

Evgeni Malkin is, naturally, another one to watch. The center has 51 points – including 37 assists – in just 41 games this season. There’s also James Neal (39 points), Jussi Jokinen (36 points) and Matt Niskanen (30 points) to name a few others.

Oh – and one familiar face will be former Sabres forward Taylor Pyatt, who joined the Penguins on January 2 when he was claimed off waivers by the Pittsburgh team. Pyatt played 230 games with the Sabres from 2001-2006. He has two goals in 10 games with Pittsburgh since being claimed.

Overall, the Penguins are a very well-rounded team with scoring coming from all over. Three of their top-ten scorers are defensemen, including rookie Olli Maatta and veterans Matt Niskanen and Kris Letang. There’s always the two-headed monster of Crosby and Malkin to contend with, but there’s also guys like Neal and Kunitz who can be absolute powerhouses if not contained.

Pittsburgh has seven players going to the Olympics this year, including a pair of players each going to represent Canada, the United States and Finland. Crosby, Kunitz, Malkin, Jokinen, Maatta, Paul Martin and Brooks Orpik will all head to Sochi in just a few weeks. Head coach Dan Bylsma and assistant coach Tony Granato will be on the US coaching squad as well.

Of course, the Penguins aren’t the only team with players to watch tonight. The Sabres have four Olympians of their own – Miller, Enroth, Henrik Tallinder and Zemgus Girgensons – as well as some streaking players too. In addition, head coach Ted Nolan will be behind the bench for Team Latvia.

Drew Stafford has been particularly hot for Buffalo; he has five points (3-2) in his last four games. Cody Hodgson has tallied eight points in the last seven games since returning from an upper-body injury, and captain Steve Ott looks to extend a three-game point streak tonight.

Phil Varone remains up with the team, so it’s expected that he’ll play in his third NHL game tonight. Varone has played over 10 minutes in each of his first two games, notching five shots and one assist overall.

Missing tonight for the Sabres will be Cody McCormick and Matt D’Agostini, both on injured reserve with upper body injuries.

Fun fact: tonight’s game is just the fourth time this season that the Sabres will play on a Monday night. It’s the second time the team is facing a back-to-back series on a Monday and Tuesday, with the previous set coming back in October. Then, the Sabres lost to Minnesota at home on Monday before defeating New York on Long Island the following day.

Tonight’s Sabres game begins at 7:30 p.m., so stay warm and settle in to watch a Buffalo vs. Pittsburgh matchup that will see a total of 11 future Olympic players face off just a few weeks before the games begin in Sochi.