It will take more than a couple of wins for the Buffalo Sabres to get where they want to be. If those victories come against two of the NHL’s elite teams, however, it’ll bring the Sabres a lot closer to their happy place.
They have the opportunity.
After knocking off division-leading Boston on Friday, the Sabres welcome another of the Eastern Conference’s best to First Niagara Center this afternoon. The Pittsburgh Penguins are in town for a nationally televised 12:30 p.m. matinee, and they brought Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and the league’s fourth-best record.
The Sabres have had a start to forget this season, but back-to-back wins over powerhouses just might change the mood and outlook in Sabreland.
“It was a good step against Boston, and Pittsburgh’s always an elite team,” Sabres center Tyler Ennis said Saturday. “If we can knock off both of them and make a statement, it would be good for our confidence and good just to get us back in the win column.”
Buffalo needs to string wins together. Based on games in hand on teams below them, the Sabres are essentially in 29th place in the 30-team league. They have a long road to travel with more than 30 percent of the schedule already played.
A winning weekend would be welcomed.
“It’s good to get a win and hopefully go from there,” right wing Patrick Kaleta said. “It’s only one, but it’s a good start and we’ve got to build off it.”
The Sabres beat Boston by playing one of their best periods of the season, scoring three times in the third for a 4-2 comeback. They’ll likely need three periods to topple Pittsburgh.
The Penguins are 7-2 on the road. They entered Saturday’s schedule with the second-ranked power play at 27.6 percent. James Neal was tied with Thomas Vanek for the goal-scoring lead with 11. Crosby was tied with Tampa’s Martin St. Louis atop the assist chart with 15.
“We know that they’re playing well,” Sabres coach Lindy Ruff said. “They’ve probably got as much team speed as Boston. I think the depth of their lineup is just as deep as Boston. Maybe the Boston defenders have a slight edge when it comes to the back end, but I think overall they’re one of the teams that you’re going to have to deal with if you want to get to the top in the East.”
The Sabres changed their fortunes against Boston by taking care of the puck. The early passes that became turnovers transformed into rush-inducing assists. The miscues that kept the Sabres hemmed in their zone became clean breakouts that put the Bruins on their heels.
“A lot of it is execution with the puck when you look at it,” Ruff said. “You don’t make an errant pass or leaving the zone you make a little quicker play, and you get to play in their end a little more. That turnover game is going to play a big part.
“They’re going to create a number of chances on their own. They have that gift. You’re going to have to defend against those. You’re going to have to ask for a couple saves. What I’m talking about is don’t hand them those extra opportunities. Don’t make that big mistake. Don’t make that errant pass. Don’t give them that extra opportunity without them working for it.”
The Penguins flew to Buffalo on Saturday, practiced in the arena and made themselves feel at home. They always fill the visiting locker room with signs bearing their team logo and organizational slogans. Based on their success away from Pittsburgh, it helps.
So does scoring first. In all seven of their road victories, the Penguins opened the scoring and quieted the home crowd.
“That has been the common thread,” coach Dan Bylsma said. “We have gotten off to good starts. We have scored first and maybe set the tone in those games, but we’ve played well defensively. We’ve been fine in some tough places to play against good teams and tough buildings.”
The Sabres are just 3-3-1 at home, but the latest game has them feeling a little better.
“I’m sure they’re going to try and build off that win,” Bylsma said. “We have a mind of our own when it comes to what we want to do on the road and where we need to go. We’re still building. We’ve had some success on the road, and we’re going to try and continue that against the Sabres.”